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Supreme court nixes charter funding question

Monday’s denial by the Colorado Supreme Court to consider a charter school funding case effectively ends an attempt to clarify state law about a district’s obligation to secure buildings for its charter students.

“The specific issue in this case involved what obligation of support there was for charter schools coming from their authorizer for their buildings,” said Bill Bethke, attorney for Dolores Huerta Preparatory High charter school. “Unfortunately … this means that issue hasn’t been addressed.”

Huerta is a Pueblo charter school that is part of the Cesar Chavez Schools Network. When Huerta and Pueblo were working out the school’s charter in 2003, the school sought $900,000 to purchase land and build a facility.

Pueblo school board members initially agreed to the $900,000 but then rescinded their decision, deleting a specific amount from the contract. Huerta leaders signed the contract but have appealed in the years since to an arbitrator, to the Colorado State Board of Education, to Denver District Court, the Colorado Court of Appeals and, most recently, to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Bethke, one of the attorneys for Huerta, points to a provision in the state’s Charter Schools Act requiring that a contract between a charter school and its authorizer specify how the district will support “any start-up facility needs” and “any long-term facility needs” of the charter school.

“The contention of the school in this case is that they received no assistance,” he said, “and no assistance is not identifying what assistance will be received.”

An arbitrator sided with Huerta in 2006, ordering the district pay the charter school the $900,000 in 90 days. But the district appealed to the State Board of Education, which rejected the order by a 5-2 vote.

Colorado courts also sided against Huerta. In April, the Colorado Court of Appeals sided with the trial court’s dismissal of Huerta’s claim, agreeing that the school lacked standing to sue the district and the board.

The appellate court ruled the school is a political subdivision and “disputes between a subordinate and a superior state agency are properly to be resolved within the executive branch without resort to judicial review.”

“The case really got hung up on what can only be characterized as technicalities,” Bethke said. “What are the mechanisms for resolutions of different kinds of disputes between charter schools and school districts – when do they go to the state board, when do they go to court and when do they apparently go nowhere?”

The Supreme Court today declined to hear Huerta’s appeal, though at least one judge believe there was merit to the consideration. Justice Alex J. Martinez cited four issues worthy of the court’s time, including the issue of district support for charter school buildings needs. See his reasoning here.

“I think the message from the Court of Appeals is that obviously it’s a statutory provision that school districts are pretty safe to ignore,” Bethke said.

Neither Lawrence Hernandez, founder of the Cesar Chavez Schools Network, nor Pueblo City schools officials could immediately be reached this afternoon for comment.

Click here to read the appellate court judgment in Dolores Huerta Preparatory High v. Colorado State Board of Education, Pueblo District 60.
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.

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