Vinny is the Vice President of Public Affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools
With mail-in ballots in hand and Election Day around the corner, I’d like to talk about a significant issue on the ballot in Durango. The Durango 9-R School District is requesting that its citizens vote in favor of a $3.2 million annual mill levy override to decrease class sizes, attract and retain staff, and invest in innovative programs and technology.
All are laudable goals for the district. Who wouldn’t want their child in a small class with a high quality teacher utilizing innovative programs and technology to inspire learning? I sure would.
If I was a taxpayer in the 9-R and my child happened to attend a free, public charter school in Durango, however, I would be out of luck. This is because the District has decided to exclude the public charter schools within 9-R from receiving any of the mill levy override funds.
It is the district’s right to exclude the charter schools in Durango, and unfortunately most school districts do exclude local charters from receiving many voter-initiated local funds (something we have got to change sooner than later, but that is a topic for another entry). I am bothered, however, by the method by which the district excluded Durango charters from receiving local tax funds. Allow me to explain.
Durango 9-R has one charter high school and a charter middle school scheduled to open in August within its boundaries: Animas High School and Mountain Middle School (MMS), respectively. Animas is authorized by the Charter School Institute (CSI), the statewide charter school authorizer, and MMS is pending authorization from CSI.
Animas is entering its second year of operation having demonstrated high flying CSAP results its first year, and MMS is a promising school with a good deal of community support.
When the question of the mill levy was being deliberated by the district in the spring/summer, representatives from both of these schools spent quite some time working with district administration to garner public support for the proposed mill levy to be placed on the ballot. At the same time, these schools requested that they be included in the distribution of the potential mill levy funds.
Money is extremely tight these days. This is especially true for schools that receive no local share of mill levy funds at a time when state dollars are shrinking. It would be equitable and basic common sense for the district to provide a proportional amount of the funds to two free public schools that educate kids who live in the district and whose parents are voting on the mill levy , and paying for it should it pass.
Durango 9-R received legal advice that it was legally prevented from including CSI-authorized schools as part of the distribution of these funds, and that the schools therefore would not be included in the mill levy. The district did invite the schools to provide an opinion from an attorney explaining why it was legal to continue discussions about possible inclusion.
It is perfectly legal for a district to distribute local tax dollars to a CSI school (in this case they are public schools serving Durango kids after all). But in June, when the charter schools produced a letter from an attorney explaining as much (full disclosure: the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ Legal Advocacy Fund financed the legal research), district legal counsel held to their opinion.
It was made known to the schools at the 9-R board meeting in late June that the district still did not believe it was legal to include the schools in the mill levy and that the district considered the issue closed.
When charter school representatives requested a spot on the agenda of the next board meeting to state their position in a public forum and converse with the board – the meeting where the vote to go forward with the mill levy question was taking place – they were denied. As such, they were only provided a three-minute public comment opportunity where the board could not address them directly and those representatives could not respond to any comments from the board or the superintendent.
This basically gave the superintendent the ability to refute anything said by the representatives at the public comment portion of the meeting without their ability to respond. The inaccurate statements about complicated legal issues that supposedly prevented the inclusion of the CSI schools located in the district were reiterated.
It has been suggested that Animas and MMS will not be included in mill levy distributions because they went outside of 9-R to be authorized. Obtaining authorization from CSI is the right of any charter school in a district without exclusive chartering authority. In their attempts to support the mill levy election while continuing discussions on an equitable distribution of the local tax funds, Animas and MMS were accused of attempting to fracture the school board and dissipate the district-school relationship.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The charter schools were also told to go find their own money outside of the local tax dollars, despite the fact that the schools educate district students and many taxpayers in the district send, or have intentions to send, their children to either Animas or MMS.
It is important to remember that both Animas and MMS are free public schools that currently do, and will, educate the children of taxpayers who reside in the Durango School District 9-R. These schools, and the children they educate, are just as deserving of local tax funds as are all public school students in the traditional schools that may benefit from this mill levy.
The charter schools currently do not receive any local funds for facilities. At least they could hope for a share of local funds to support high quality teaching and cutting-edge technology. If district administration doesn’t think local charter school students are deserving of local tax dollars, then come right out and state this publicly rather than hiding behind invalid legal excuses or utilizing underhanded tactics to obscure facts.
Even though MMS will receive no mill levy funds should the initiative pass, the MMS Board of Directors voted unanimously to support the mill levy so as not to deny 9-R children services they need. If I had a child in Animas High School or were considering enrolling my child there or MMS, however, I would seriously think twice about voting in favor of this mill levy question. I would want to make sure that the district is looking out for the interests of all public school students in the district, and right now it is not.
You better believe my vote would reflect that.
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