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Dougco voucher case will stay in Denver

Updated – A Denver judge has scheduled a three-day hearing starting Aug. 2 on a motion to halt the voucher pilot. District Judge Michael A. Martinez said today he expects to rule on the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction shortly after the hearing is completed. If granted, the motion would stop the pilot from going forward while the legal challenges are resolved.

A Denver judge has denied Douglas County’s request to move the legal action against its voucher pilot to its home turf, saying he’s not convinced the state’s role in creating the pilot was “tangential.”

Denver District Court Judge Michael A. Martinez signed the seven-page ruling Saturday, declaring he was not persuaded by the arguments put forth by lawyers for the Dougco school district and its board. They contended the lawsuit should be moved to Douglas County because that’s where the actions occurred leading to the pilot and because it would be more convenient for the parties, witnesses and “the ends of justice.”

“Douglas County defendants also assert that apart from administrative tasks, the state defendants have had no substantive role in the development of the program,” Martinez wrote. “The court is not persuaded.”

The Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education are defendants, along with the district and school board, in a now-consolidated set of lawsuits filed June 21 by civil liberties groups, Douglas County parents and residents. They’re seeking to halt the state’s first district-driven voucher pilot, approved by a 7-0 vote of the Dougco school board on March 15.

Under the pilot, 500 Dougco students will use 75 percent of the district’s allocated per-pupil funding in 2011-12 – or $4,575 – to attend private schools that have entered into contracts with the district. The plaintiffs argue the pilot violates the state constitution and state school finance laws, which they say prohibit the spending of public dollars for religious schools.

Attorneys for Dougco filed a motion July 5 seeking a change of venue from Denver to Douglas County. Last Wednesday, the plaintiffs filed a motion objecting to the move and included email exchanges and notes of meetings in Denver between county and state officials, which they presented as proof that at least some of the action related to the pilot occurred outside Douglas County.

Friday, Dougco and state officials submitted a joint response. Martinez was not convinced.

“… the court finds that the meetings hosted by officials of the state defendants constituted more than mere “tangential” conduct as the Douglas County defendants contend,” the judge wrote. “The more reasonable conclusion under the circumstances and pleadings presented here, is that the meetings were a part of the process to identify various issues in the implementation of the program and to propose solutions thereto.”

Martinez also noted that the distance between the Douglas and Denver county courthouses is 30 miles and that Douglas County’s official website touts how “convenient” the commute to Denver is for Dougco residents.

“… the Douglas County defendants failed to provide any factual evidence to support its claim that the parties and witnesses are inconvenienced by this action remaining in Denver County,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, the court concludes that a change of venue is not warranted due to convenience or the ends of justice.”

Attorneys for both sides are scheduled to meet Monday morning with Martinez to set dates for pending motions, including the plaintiffs’ request for an immediate halt to the voucher pilot. Tuesday, the Dougco school board is scheduled for final vote on the creation of a charter school that will administer the pilot.