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Published in Print: September 29, 1999, as Colo. Charter Ruling Allows State To Overrule Districts

Colo. Charter Ruling Allows State To Overrule Districts

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Colorado educators and policymakers are grappling with the potential implications of a recent state supreme court ruling on charter schools that highlights tensions between state and local control.

The high court upheld the state school board's ultimate authority to overrule a local district's rejection of a charter application, saying the provision in the state's charter law did not violate the state constitution.

Though a constitutional cloud has been lifted, how broadly the state will interpret the ruling remains uncertain. That question likely won't be resolved until the state board orders a local board to approve an application it had previously rejected.

And it is unclear whether a charter school will actually open as a result of such an order if the district and the applicants still can't resolve their disputes and agree on a final contract. The state board's lawyer was unavailable for comment last week.

A provision of the 1993 law that allows organizers of the independent public schools to ask the state board to reverse a district's decision "does not infringe unconstitutionally on a local board's control of instruction," Chief Justice Mary J. Mullarkey wrote in a unanimous ruling Sept. 13.

The case grew out of a dispute between the Denver public schools and the state board over the fate of the proposed Thurgood Marshall Charter Middle School.

Organizers first submitted their application for a charter to Denver officials in December 1993. After the Denver school board rejected the plan twice, the state board ordered it approved. Because the matter has been tied up in the courts, the school has never opened.

Weighing 'Best Interests'

Lawyers for the Denver schools and the Colorado Association of School Boards said the ruling preserves some local control. The high court found the state board had overstepped its authority by requiring status reports on negotiations between Marshall organizers and Denver officials.

And the ruling recognizes that a charter application is not the same as a binding contract, or charter, which spells out key details such as school site and funding--precisely those issues where negotiations fell apart with Marshall. The state board can order a district to approve an application and negotiate in good faith, but the contract terms are left to be sorted out at the local level, said Patrick B. Mooney, a lawyer for the 70,000-student Denver district.

In Colorado, individuals or groups interested in opening a charter school must apply to the school board in the district where the school would operate. If the board rejects the charter application, the organizers may appeal to the state school board.

On the first appeal, the state board either affirms the local board's decision or sends the matter back to the local board with a recommendation to reconsider.

On a second appeal, if the state sides with the charter school, the charter school law calls on the state to send back the application with instructions for the district to approve it.

Since 1993, the state board has decided only five second appeals; it affirmed district decisions to reject charter applications three times and sided with charter organizers one time other than the Marshall proposal, according to Jim Griffin, the director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

He hailed the Colorado Supreme Court's ruling, saying that without the appeals process, 15 of the state's 69 charter schools would not be open today.

School's Fate Unclear

In Denver, district lawyers had argued that the state's order exceeded the board's constitutional power.

But the high court's ruling says the charter law's second-appeal provision "strikes an appropriate balance" between local and state powers.

None of the Denver board members who first turned down the Marshall charter five years ago remains in office. Since 1994, the district has approved four charter schools.

Last week, the board's president, Susan G. Edwards, said the panel had not yet discussed the ruling or the fate of Thurgood Marshall Charter Middle School.

Cordia Booth, a veteran Denver district teacher who is the school's primary organizer, said she and the others involved must decide whether to push forward with the plan they outlined six years ago.

"Most people are saying, yes it's about time, let's go forward," she said. "But I want to be certain that the needs we saw years ago are [still] there."

Vol. 19, Issue 5, Pages 21,23

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