Monument Academy Charter School is about to embark on unchartered territory with a move that could set new precedent for how school districts across Colorado handle mill levy override (MLO) funds with the charter schools they authorize.
The K-8 charter school that serves more than 900 students, roughly 15 percent of the students in Lewis-Palmer School District 38, is caught in a battle over funds they say the district should have been sharing with them since voters approved a 1999 MLO.
With its charter contract renewal on the line, it looks like the impasse will result in the school either bringing legal action against the district or appealing its renewal to Colorado’s state board of education.
Don Griffin, executive director of the school, says over the past 16 years Monument Academy has lost out on an average of $600,000 per year in funds he believes should have been given to the school. He’s not asking for the past funds; he only wants the district to give the school its rightful share in the future.
The school’s board of directors agrees with Griffin and is prepared to fight for the money all the way to the Colorado State Board of Education if they have too, Griffin said.
“I don’t have a vote on the board,” Griffin said. “But I’ve never seen a board more connected and consolidated with their feelings as this. From the beginning, they have been 100 percent in agreement. This is not about ego. It’s about taking care of teachers and kids.”
He hopes that the District 38 board will see its responsibility to the voters and realize the money should be split among all district schools, not just the traditional district-run models.
Lewis-Palmer Board of Education President Mark Pfoff, did not return requests for comment from Complete Colorado. However, on a Facebook page Pfoff says he created to allow for more open communication with district residents, he dedicated a lengthy post to the situation, even posting one page of minutes from a 1999 Board of Education meeting that he says is proof the charter school was never intended to get a portion of the funds.
Among his claims are:
- “Back then it was common practice to keep MLOs separate.”
- “There is no wording in the 1999 MLO stating that (Monument Academy) is included.”
- “I talked with two school board members who were on the board in 1999, and they were clear that (Monument Academy) was not part of the D38 MLO.”
- “I talked with the superintendent back in 1999; (Monument Academy) was not included.”
- “I reviewed the school board minutes when the MLO was discussed (July 1999). There was clear information as to the intent of the MLO; NO reference to the charter school.”
- “I have talked with multiple people from the community who lived in the area back in 1999; all stated it was known that (Monument Academy) was not part of the 1999 MLO.”
- “I lived in Monument in 1999, and I knew the MLOs were separate and that it was common knowledge.”
The problem with Pfoff’s claims is they are 17-year-old, second-hand statements based on memory.
Griffin said until recently the school has not asked for the MLO to be shared because it always believed the “common knowledge” excuse. This year they decided to ask for proof.
“Just because your friends tell you you’re Superman,” Griffin said, “doesn’t mean you’re Superman. We simply asked for legal documentation that shows we were excluded. We even made the point that if there is a document out there, something signed, something filed with the secretary of state, we would be happy to back off.”
The one document Pfoff speaks of does not explicitly include (Monument Academy), but it does not exclude it either. It is vague, saying only that “passage of a budget override election would result in additional funding for maintaining and improving educational programs in the district.”
Additionally, the document says the ballot language wording would be voted on at a special meeting in August, but those minutes were not available. When asked to present those minutes through his Facebook Page – which he says is to encourage open communication – Pfoff said “I would rather not bypass the normal process for obtaining public records, so please contact the administration and make a request for those specific meeting minutes,” despite the fact he bypassed the normal process with all the other documents he posted.
Griffin said the board is determined to follow this through because they believe their parents are entitled to some of the revenue from the taxes they pay.
Most discouraging for Griffin is the lack of communication from the district. Monument Academy brought the issue to the table as its number one priority at the first meeting in August of 2015. However, district officials didn’t mention it again until the last meeting on March 9th when Griffin brought it up again. That was when Griffin learned the district would not consider it.
“They never gave us any indication they were not going to put it in the contract,” Griffin said, adding negotiations had gone well until then.
The district agreed to other terms Monument asked for such as granting a 10-year charter instead of the traditional five, removing the preschool from the charter agreement and allowing it to operate on its own, and allowing the school to expand to a high school at a future point without requiring a new, separate application.
Pfoff told the Colorado Springs Gazette that he believes Griffin is trying to intimidate the district, and this could fracture the community.
Pfoff said in the Gazette story that Monument Academy is trying to “leverage two sides to fight for scraps.” And “We need to be fighting together to get adequate funding for all the schools, not stealing money from one school to give to another.”
Griffin shrugged off Pfoff’s comments.
“I find it funny that they say we are trying to intimidate them or are using last-second tactics,” Griffin said. “When your first item, on the first day, takes them almost seven months to come back, and then just to say they are not going to include it, it just felt disingenuous.”
Griffin said the school will not accept the contract without the MLO and is considering a couple of different options.
“One is taking an appeal to [the Colorado] State Board of Education,” Griffin said. “We are also considering whether or not litigation might be the appropriate action to take in this case.”
If the school does appeal to the state board, it is likely the first time the board will hear a contract dispute based entirely on funding.
No one with the state board could recall this ever happening, and the Colorado League of Charter Schools had not returned phone calls by the time this story published.
Griffin said parents should not worry about the school status for the fall.
“They have accepted and conditionally approved us,” he said. “They have to give us a contract. If it’s not fair or equitable, that is one of the trigger points used to appeal to state board of education. We are not going out of business.”