Colo. Districts Sue Statewide Chartering Authority

Published September 1, 2006

Three Colorado public school districts are suing the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI), a state agency authorized to charter schools in districts hostile to charters. Denver District Judge Joseph E. Meyers is expected to rule in October whether the agency is consistent with the state’s constitution, which plaintiffs contend gives districts the right to control all public schools within their borders.

The Colorado Legislature created the CSI two years ago when it passed H,B. 1362, introduced by two pro-charter Democrats. Governed by a nine-member board, the CSI charters schools in districts the state has designated as not having “exclusive chartering authority.” Under the law, the Colorado State Board of Education denies exclusive authority over charter schools to districts the board has deemed hostile to charters.

Since its inception, the CSI has chartered seven schools–two that opened in 2005 and five more this year. Once all are opened, the schools will collectively serve 3,000 students.

Districts Resentful

After being denied “exclusive chartering authority,” the Boulder Valley School District and Adams 50 School District in Westminster filed suit separately last year against the CSI. The Poudre School District in Fort Collins launched its own suit in 2006. The three suits were recently combined into one. Since its suit was filed, Boulder has received exclusive chartering authority, throwing into question its legal standing in the lawsuit.

Poudre School Board Chairwoman Jana Ley believes the districts will prevail.

“We want to make sure schools using public funds are accountable at the local level,” Ley said. She said she resents how her district has been characterized in statewide newspapers as anti-charter schools or anti-school choice, noting the Poudre District has three charter schools and several option schools–the district-run schools of choice that existed before H.B. 1362 was passed.

“We like choice,” said Ley.

But the state Board of Education denied the Poudre District exclusive authority because the district adopted charter school guidelines the state interpreted as a moratorium, Ley said. The district capped charter school enrollment at a specific percentage of total district-wide enrollment. The district subsequently dropped the cap, said Ley, in order to increase its chances of receiving exclusive authority.

Ley said the district was open to hearing from groups offering “unique” charter ideas for offerings not already available in the district.

‘Sour Grapes’ Mentality

Ley characterized the state board’s decision to deny the district exclusive authority as arbitrary. Chartering should be done solely by the district, she said, and it is “inappropriate for politically appointed people in Denver to make decisions” about what goes on in local districts. The CSI has chartered a school slated to open this fall in the Poudre District, but Ley said she knew nothing about it.

CSI Director Randy DeHoff disagreed with the districts’ stated intentions in launching their lawsuits, calling them “sour grapes.”

“The districts don’t want to lose control,” DeHoff said. “It’s not about the kids; it’s about power and control and who gets to spend the money.”

DeHoff said districts that have good relationships with charter schools are not opposed to the CSI.

Students at the CSI schools that opened in 2005 are doing quite well, DeHoff noted, adding his agency “has established a reputation in the education community that we are interested in high-quality applications” for new charter schools.

Krista Kafer ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Denver, Colorado.