Flurry of filings in Dougco voucher lawsuits

Plaintiffs in two lawsuits challenging the Douglas County voucher pilot are asking for an immediate halt to the plan, arguing it must be stopped before any public dollars flow to private schools.

Cindra Barnard, left, and Anne Kleinkopf are leaders of Taxpayers for Public Education.
Cindra Barnard, left, and Anne Kleinkopf are leaders of Taxpayers for Public Education.

“Once the money is illegally diverted away from public schools, the bell can’t be unrung,” said Gregory M. Lipper, attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the plaintiffs.

Americans United, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and a handful of Douglas County parents, filed the motion for a preliminary injunction on Tuesday.

Taxpayers for Public Education, a group of Douglas County parents and residents who are the plaintiffs in the second lawsuit opposing the voucher pilot, filed a similar motion Wednesday.

In addition to the preliminary injunction, both sets of plaintiffs have asked Denver District Judge Michael Anthony Martinez to consolidate the two lawsuits into one, noting the “cases share common questions of law and fact,” according to court documents.

Martinez has yet to rule on the motion to consolidate or the request for a preliminary injunction. He’s also considering a motion for change of venue, filed by two defendants – the Douglas County School District and its school board – who want the legal action moved out of Denver and into Douglas County.

“A judge in Douglas County should hear it because this is where it’s all going on,” said school district spokesman Randy Barber.

Court dockets show the Americans United lawsuit is set for a status review with Martinez on July 13; both lawsuits have status reviews with the judge on July 19 and 26.

District, board want legal action moved to Douglas County

Douglas County school leaders filed their motions for change of venue in both lawsuits on July 1.

Eric Hall, a private attorney who advised district leaders on the creation of the voucher pilot last year, filed the motions, arguing “all the actions giving rise to this lawsuit have taken place” in Douglas County.

Image of Eric Hall
Eric Hall
Both lawsuits name the district and school board, along with two other defendants – the Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education.

Hall denies that the state entities have taken action related to the program and wrote that two meetings, on Jan. 5 and March 7, between state and district officials were “informal.”

“The only ‘decisional acts’ by public officers have been taken in Douglas County by the Douglas County Board and the Douglas County administration,” he wrote.

But Lipper, with Americans United, said his plaintiffs will oppose the district’s effort to move the lawsuits to Douglas County.

The legal action belongs in Denver, he said, because state entities are “implicitly or otherwise approving the Douglas County program and will be funding the Douglas County program.”

“It’s state money being used and so the county voucher program could not be happening if the state weren’t providing the money to fund it,” Lipper said. “And so the state is an important part of this case and that’s why Denver is absolutely an appropriate forum for the case.”

Hall, who also helped create a 2003 statewide voucher pilot, later struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court, received more than $8,000 for his work on the Dougco pilot.

Wednesday, Barber said Hall’s legal expenses – and those of two others at the Denver firm of Rothgerber, Johnson & Lyons who have entered appearances in the lawsuits – would be paid from a legal fund created when Dougco board members voted 7-0 to support the voucher pilot.

Barber said the fund has a balance of $600 but that district leaders are “very optimistic” that figure will  increase.

Plaintiffs request immediate halt to voucher pilot

In the pilot, 500 Douglas County students will receive four checks totaling $4,575 to be used for tuition at a participating “partner” private school starting this fall.

That figure represents 75 percent of the per-pupil funding that Douglas County is to receive in 2011-12. The other 25 percent would go to a charter school created by the district to manage the program.

But per-pupil funding comes from a combination of state and local taxes and other revenues. In their motion for a preliminary injunction, Taxpayers for Public Education note that local sources account for 33 percent of the per-pupil funding that Dougco receives and state sources account for 67 percent.

“If the voucher program is not stopped, the Douglas County School District will funnel over $3,000,000 in public funds it receives from the Colorado Department of Education to private schools in direct violation … of the Colorado Constitution, and the Public School Finance Act,” the motion states.

“Plaintiffs seek a preliminary injunction prohibiting defendants from taking any further action to implement the voucher program.”

Similarly, plaintiffs in the second lawsuit seek an injunction declaring the pilot is likely to be found unconstitutional.

Fourteen of the 19 private school partners are religious and “will use these taxpayer funds for religious education and indoctrination,” the motion contends.

District and state officials have “expressly authorized them to use taxpayer funds to discriminate in both enrollment and hiring on the basis of religious beliefs, sexual orientation and medical conditions,” it continues.

“Defendants also have approved the use of taxpayer funds to require participating students to attend religious worship services and swear an oath to the particular faith favored by the schools … ”

None of the defendants – Dougco, its school board, the state board or the CDE – has yet filed responses to the motions.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede