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Is state a “critical” player in voucher pilot?

Plaintiffs seeking to stop the Douglas County School District voucher pilot are fighting a motion to shift the case from Denver to Douglas County, producing emails and other documents they say prove state education officials are playing “a critical role in shaping and implementing” the pilot.

Exhibit A in the court filings is a Nov. 17, 2010 email from State Board of Education Chairman Bob Schaffer to Mary Frances Nevans, then serving as the board’s secretary.

In the email, sent months before Dougco school board members approved the voucher pilot slated to send 500 students to private schools this fall, Schaffer wrote:

“Essentially, if Douglas County adopts a voucher plan, will there be any problems in getting the money to follow the student? If so, I intend to do everything I can to fix ASAP any such problems that can be fixed by the board.”

Other documents show district and state officials discussing how to structure the pilot.

Notes from a March 7 meeting show state Education Commissioner Robert Hammond and Dougco’s legal counsel, Robert Ross, talking about creating a charter school versus a district program.

From the notes, which are abbreviated, not word-for-word:

Hammond: ‘A key issue is how you spin it – as a charter or a program … ’

Ross: ‘We are looking at both ways.’

Hammond: ‘Easier as a charter.’

State response: No specific recommendations

Janelle Asmus, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Education and the state board, said state officials did not provide specific recommendations.

Bob Schaffer, chair, State Board of Education

Bob Schaffer, chair, State Board of Education

“Our staff was providing technical assistance, answering questions, walking through scenarios to help the Douglas County School District in their quest to create an innovative school,” she said.“Our goal is to provide assistance to school districts. They tell us what it is they would like to accomplish and we tell them how they could accomplish that within the confines of the law.”

Schaffer, a charter high school principal in Fort Collins, said he is a “huge fan” of Dougco’s efforts.

“I think any time a district empowers parents and improves opportunities for children, I’m in favor of that,” he said. “As chairman of the board, I want the CDE to be helpful when districts are moving in an innovative direction.”

But, he said, “the fact is neither the CDE nor the board has done anything. The actions of Douglas County have been Douglas County’s.”

Schaffer, a former U.S. Congressman, has made little secret about his support for vouchers over the years, including serving as head of the pro-voucher Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education or CARE.

“That’s my opinion,” he said of his enthusiasm for the voucher pilot. “If anybody is surprised about that, they’ve been asleep.”

Judge, attorneys to meet Monday on suit

Douglas County school board members voted 7-0 on March 15 to approve the state’s first district-driven voucher pilot, which will provide $4,575 – or 75 percent of Dougco’s allotted per-pupil funding in 2011-12 – to participating families.

On June 21, just hours apart, two lawsuits were filed in Denver District Court to halt the pilot – the first by Dougco parents and civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the second by Taxpayers for Public Education, a group of Dougco parents and residents.

Judge Michael Anthony Martinez agreed on Monday to the plaintiffs’ requests to consolidate their suits. The Douglas County School District, its school board, Colorado Department of Education and State Board of Education are defendants.

On July 5, the district and school board filed a request for change of venue, seeking to move the legal action from Denver, seen as more liberal, to Douglas County, viewed as more conservative.

“The only decisional acts by public officers have been taken in Douglas County by the Douglas County board and Douglas County administration,” wrote Eric Hall, a private attorney working for the district.

Wednesday, the plaintiffs submitted nine exhibits – emails and meeting notes – to support their claim that state officials are playing a bigger role and the case should stay in Denver.

“This case is about whether the state defendants can send money that is constitutionally restricted for use in public education to the county,” their lawyers wrote, “knowing that it will be used to fund private school education in violation of the constitution and state statute.”

The defendants have until close of business Friday to reply to the motion. On Monday, attorneys are scheduled to meet with Martinez to set dates for pending motions, including the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction halting the pilot.

Emails, meeting notes between Dougco and state officials

Emails from state board chair Bob Schaffer and former commissioner Dwight Jones

  • Schaffer to board secretary Mary Frances Nevans on Nov. 17, later sent to Jones: “I’d like to pave the way for Douglas County right away within CDE. Can you ask around and see if you can identify any barriers at CDE regarding funding or anything else. Essentially, if Douglas County adopts a voucher plan, will there be any problems in getting the money to follow the student? If so, I intend to do everything I can to fix ASAP any such problems that can be fixed by the board. If there are legislative barriers, I’d like them well defined so that legislators can be advised where to start in January.”
  • Jones directly to Schaffer on Nov. 19: “We are still working this on our end. Please share with Robert (Hammond, who took Jones’ place after his December departure) anything else that we might do that you would deem helpful.”
  • Read the emails

Notes from Jan. 5 meeting, exchange between Dougco CFO Bonnie Betz and Hammond

  • Betz: ‘What kind of resistance will we get from CDE – do not want to have a plan – and then get shot down.’
  • Hammond: ‘Hope to be at a point to constantly come back to us. Tony (Dyl, state attorney): Recommend district continues to make commissioner aware of plan as it develops. Commissioner and dept. continue to work on how to count kids – and be clear how this can be done. Don’t know what structure will be. Need to see more. Don’t intend to block it.’
  • Read the meeting notes

Email from Dougco legal counsel Robert Ross to Hammond, on March 2

  • “I know you and your team are meeting to discuss DCSD’s scholarship draft this week. I certainly do not want to rush you but we are anxious to hear your thoughts, especially on the best structure (charter versus district school or program) to account for the students, as well as the applicability of the “nonwaivable” laws for students being served in private school partners.”
  • Read the email

Notes from March 7 meeting, Hammond, state attorney Tony Dyl, Ross and Betz

  • Hammond: ‘A key issue is how you spin it – as a charter or a program. As a charter, easier on waivers, set up unique circumstances on how the board is overseeing the charter. Versus the program, which is more of a waiver challenge. Which direction?’
  • Ross: ‘We are looking at both ways.’
  • Hammond: ‘Easier as a charter.’
  • Betz: ‘We are presenting both to our board as an option … Charter school is more waivable.’
  • Dyl: ‘You will have to jump more hoops if you selection “program” over “charter.”
  • Read the meeting notes