Colorado Districts Asking Courts to Scuttle State Chartering Board

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Several Colorado school districts are challenging the legality of a statewide body recently established to approve charter schools.

One district filed a lawsuit in June, while two others that sued in 2005 are scheduled for a hearing in state court in Denver this fall. The lawsuits contend that the Colorado Charter School Institute violates the state constitution by usurping the authority of local districts to open and oversee schools.

“It appears to us that the [institute] goes against state law,” said Jana L. Ley, the president of the 25,000-student Poudre school district, which filed suit in state court this spring. “I would prefer that charter schools, or any kind of schools, be a part of the district and have conversations with us and let us know what is going on.”

The challenges come as the Florida School Boards Association has decided to file a similar suit in September against a new state chartering board in the Sunshine State, said the group’s executive director, Wayne Blanton.

Backers of the Colorado institute say it plays a vital role in districts that are unwelcoming toward the independent public schools.

“The Colorado Charter School Institute fills a statewide need for a chartering agency that acts independently of local school districts that are hostile to charter schools,” said a July 9 editorial in the Rocky Mountain News. “If you doubt the need, look no further than the lawsuits filed by three such hostile districts trying to shut it down.”

The Colorado legislature in 2004 approved the institute’s creation. Three other states—Florida, New Mexico, and South Carolina—passed measures this year creating such bodies, while a handful of others already have them. ("States to Let Special Boards Award Charters," June 7, 2006.)

‘Part of the Landscape’

The Colorado institute approved two charters to operate for the 2005-06 school year, with five more set to open for the first time this fall. One of those schools will be in the Poudre district, which includes Fort Collins and some surrounding areas.

Most Colorado districts have been granted exclusive authority to approve charter schools within their borders, but Poudre is among a handful that have been denied that power by the state. The reason has to do with a limit the district had set on the establishment of new charters.

Two other school systems, the Adams County School District No. 50 and the Boulder Valley school system, have also sued the state over the statewide institute.

Jane Urschel, the associate executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said her group opposed the formation of the institute, and worries about its impact on districts that lack exclusive chartering authority.

“Right now, districts have no say about the charters being placed in their districts,” she said. “School boards are quite concerned about students they feel a responsibility for.”

She added: “Our interest is in getting resolved the constitutional provision that we believe says only elected school boards can start new schools and be responsible for them legally.”

State officials declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal action.

Jim Griffin, the executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, suggested that the lawsuits were consistent with a history of litigation over chartering in the state. He noted that the state was sued after passing its first charter school law in 1993, but ultimately prevailed before the state supreme court.

“The resistance to charters is just part of the landscape,” he said. “It’s all about power—power and control.”

At the same time, Mr. Griffin’s group has its own gripes with the state. It has sued the state board of education over how the board has handled the granting of exclusive chartering authority to districts.

Vol. 25, Issue 44, Page 23

Published in Print: August 9, 2006, as Colorado Districts Asking Courts to Scuttle State Chartering Board
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