Five of 18 private schools that accepted checks from the Douglas County School District for its now legally blocked school choice voucher program have not yet returned all the money. The $26,300 outstanding balance is a relatively small percentage of the $283,000 distributed before a district court judge ordered the program stopped, but district officials want it back.
“From a taxpayer’s point of view, you pay taxes for somebody that’s going to be in Douglas County schools,” district spokesperson Randy Barber said. “If the student isn’t part of the district, we expect that money back.”
The Douglas County School Board adopted the program in March 2011, but a Denver District Court judge issued a permanent injunction against it Aug. 11, 2011. The ruling came three days after most Douglas County Schools had convened for the school year.
Most of the nearly 300 students enrolled in the program had just begun to settle into their new schools, and the school district had written checks to cover the first quarter of their academic year. While some opted to come back to regular district schools, parents and many of the private schools found ways to keep the students enrolled there, but returned the money.
A further twist in the reimbursement puzzle is that the checks originally were written not to the schools, but the parents of students awarded the vouchers. Parents then turned the checks over to the schools. When the court ruling was given, many of the checks already had been cashed. So although the school technically owes the money, it is the parent’s responsibility to pay the tuition.
Of the five schools the district shows with overdue balances, most have made partial repayment or never used some of the checks because the voucher students returned to district schools. In several instances, the district stopped payment before the checks were cashed.
Ave Maria Catholic School and Lutheran High School, both in Parker, owe the lion’s share of the outstanding balance at $9,150 and $11,437 respectively. Mackintosh Academy, which has campuses in Boulder and Littleton, has a balance due of $1,144; Mullen High School in Denver, $2,287; and Shepherd of the Hills Christian School in Centennial, $2,287.
Representatives from four of the five schools did not return calls requesting comment. But Barber said Lutheran High School has pledged to the district it will repay its share.
Shepherd of the Hills Christian School Interim Principal Herb Weissenfels said the school is waiting to see what happens to the program as the case goes to the Colorado Court of Appeals. The school’s balance is for two students who remain enrolled at the K-8 Centennial school, and Weissenfels said a check already has been written to repay the district.
“We certainly are not interested in keeping money from Douglas County schools that doesn’t belong to us,” he said. “Depending on what the court says, we are in a position to return the money or keep it. We’ve set that money aside. We don’t dare use it and then have to dig it up later.”
Even if the court of appeals upholds the district court ruling, school district officials already have said they’ll plead the case all the way to the top if necessary, a process they acknowledge could take years. If the case continues on from the court of appeals, Weissenfels said Shepherd of the Hills promptly will return the money.
Barber said the district has been contacting the schools and parents “to politely ask for the funding back.”
“I don’t know why those schools have not given it back,” he said. “I think the hope was and still is that the injunction would be overturned and the students would be able to continue on with the program.”
Neither Barber nor school board president John Carson would say what steps the district might take if the money is not voluntarily returned.
“We’re confident we’re going to win the case so that’s not going to be an issue for us,” Carson said.
What is owed
Partner School Total sent Balance Due
Ave Maria Catholic School $20,587 $9,150
Lutheran High School $19,444 $11,437
Mackintosh Academy $1,144 $1,144
Mullen High School $3,431 $2,287
Shepherd of the Hills $3,431 $2,287