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Officials stress reasoning

Educational benefits, not money, behind school compromise

Brent Boyer

Steamboat Springs School District officials stressed Tuesday that the sole impetus for creating a Montessori program at Strawberry Park Elementary School was its educational benefits.

But with the pending withdrawal of a lawsuit against the district and the subsequent elimination of the financial impact a charter school could have created, there’s little question the district will reap monetary savings from the agreement reached Monday.

To date, the school district has spent nearly $28,000 in legal expenses to fight the proposed Montessori charter school. Finance Director Dale Mellor said that total will increase slightly as the district’s attorney finishes his work on the case and settlement.

The district also no longer has to worry about the revenue it would have lost if it was ordered to open a charter school. Mellor has estimated the district’s cost for a Montessori would be $250,000 in its first year of operation. If enrollment at the school increased as projected, the costs to the district could have reached $890,000 in the school’s fifth year of operation.

The district estimates the cost of implementing the Montessori program for one class will cost $50,000 in one-time expenses, including teacher training, materials and supplies. The district plans to fund the program with grants, fund-raisers and one-time revenue sources.

Steamboat Springs Montessori members have estimated the charter school’s cost to the district at much less than Mellor’s projections. The group said it would have bought back additional services from the district, considered reducing its share of mill-levy revenue and other negotiations to lessen any impact to the district.

Superintendent Donna Howell, who Steamboat Springs Montessori credits for opening the dialogue to compromise, said ending the lawsuit had nothing to do with money.

“I wasn’t approaching the potential of implementing the strand based upon the lawsuit,” Howell said Tuesday.

At no time before, during or after the negotiations were completed did she consider compromising on a strand to save the district money, she said, adding that educational decisions based upon financial gain often are poor ones.

“If I didn’t believe it was a sound educational option that could work in this community, I wouldn’t have pursued it,” Howell said.

For Steamboat Springs Montessori, the decision to accept the district’s proposal meant abandoning the guarantee of implementing a “pure” Montessori program that a charter school would have provided it.

“It’s definitely a tradeoff,” Jody Patten said. “But we’re community members. We need to live here and compromise and get along.”

The group also realized a charter school wouldn’t have opened in the fall, no matter what happened in Routt County Court or at the state legislative level.

“We see that we have this bubble of children who want this method,” Patten said. “This seemed to us like it made the most sense.”

Jim Griffin, executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said he questions whether the compromise was the best decision for Steamboat Springs Montessori.

“I think it’s very rare that a strand will offer the kind of quality education that parents in the district had asked for and laid out in their charter application,” Griffin said. “It’s hard to imagine it’s going to be everything it could be.”

The League of Charter School’s Legal Advocacy Fund has been paying for a “pretty sizeable percentage” of Steamboat Springs Montessori’s legal bills, Griffin said.

Regardless of the compromise, the actions of the Steamboat Springs School Board will continue to be a driving force behind legislation to alter the Colorado Charter Schools Act, Griffin said.

“I think the school district’s actions exposed a flaw or two in the statute,” he said. “I think that’s going to get fixed, and I think Steamboat is a big reason for it.”

— To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com


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