This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. 4/14 to corect Portland’s school budget
PORTLAND – Now that Portland’s first charter school is firming up its enrollment numbers, the most painful part of the equation for surrounding schools is also under way: Learning how many students are leaving for Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, and calculating the cost.
Baxter Academy expects to collect $1.4 million in per-pupil spending from surrounding districts if it reaches its enrollment goal of 160 students in 9th- and 10th-grade classes. That figure is expected to double to $2.9 million in two years as the charter school adds 11th- and 12th-grade classes.
Portland in particular has struggled to accommodate the cost of the local charter school in an $98 million budget that already includes unexpected increases from the recent curtailment and the state shifting some teacher retirement costs to local districts. The district, which will likely send the largest number of students to Baxter, has budgeted $500,000 for charter school costs.
“It is extremely difficult to budget for any unknown,” said Superintendent Manny Caulk, calling the charter school costs a “hardship and unfair” to nearby school districts.
Under current law, state funding follows a student who goes to a charter school. But there may be a new funding plan in the works that spreads out the cost statewide, prompted by mounting concerns about the financial impact on local school districts.
Baxter board Vice President Allison Crean Davis said the school plans to announce new enrollment figures this week, based on commitment letters that were due Saturday.
Local school officials who penciled best-guess figures into their budgets say they need to nail down the exact charter school costs.
Generally speaking, the per-pupil funding starts at $8,750, although it goes up — in some cases significantly — if the student has special needs.
Based on letters of intent to enroll, Baxter says its 160 prospective students come from more than 45 towns. But for school systems the financial impact is more concentrated, since almost half of those students, 73 of them, come from just six surrounding districts: Portland (18); RSU 5 — Freeport, Pownal, Durham (17); South Portland (10); Westbrook (10); RSU 21 — Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Arundel (9) and RSU 61 — Bridgton, Casco, Naples, Sebago (9.)
RSU 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh said the district set aside $110,000 in charter school costs in next year’s $26 million school budget, but at 17 prospective Baxter students, the cost may be higher. With much of the budget tied up in fixed personnel and maintenance costs, the $110,000 represents a big chunk of what is a small amount of discretionary funds, she said.
“That’s not the kind of money you can absorb without budgeting for it,” Welsh said. “None of us have budgets with additional funds that could adjust for the impact of charter schools.”
The poster child for the impact of charter schools is Regional School Unit 54 in Skowhegan, which is located between two charter schools. The district is expected to lose more than $400,000 in funding to charter schools this year and more than $600,000 next year, when 60 students from the district attend Cornville Regional Charter School and 10 students go to the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, formerly known as Good Will-Hinckley.
“The loss of $1 million over this two-year period has been devastating to our local schools,” RSU 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry told the Legislature’s Education Committee recently. “These monies … will come from the elimination of staff, programs, supplies, extracurricular activities, books, technology for the remaining 2,600-plus students in our district.”
The problem was significant enough that several legislators introduced bills to change the funding formula, most to end school district payments. Testifying against those bills, Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen accused supporters of simply wanting to end charter schools altogether.
That, in turn, prompted committee members to ask Bowen for suggestions on alternate funding ideas.
This past week, he laid out a plan to spread the cost statewide. Under the plan, a school district would receive its usual state funding in the first year after a student leaves for a charter school. The district’s funding would decrease over time, but the decrease would be less than what the district must pay to a charter school under the present system.
This is what happens currently if a family moves from one town to another, or if a student goes to a neighboring town’s school under a superintendent’s agreement.
“You’re not going to have a disproportionate impact on any single district,” Bowen told committee members. “This is a state-level initiative.”
The initial start-up costs of the charter schools would be paid by the state — with the funds coming out of a pool of money shared by all school districts.
That has drawn criticism from the Maine Education Association.
“As MEA understands it, the proposal would first fund the needs of the charter schools and THEN the rest of the money would go out to public schools,” MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley wrote in an email. “Given the state’s consistent shortchanging of our local public schools, it would seem unfair to public schools that the charters would get their money first, and whatever remains would be left for all of the rest of our public schools.”
Bowen’s office said Friday that it wasn’t officially proposing the plan, or necessarily supporting it.
It was presented “in the spirit of providing some ideas for discussion,” department spokesman David Connerty-Marin said. “The ball is in (the committee’s) court.”
Education Committee members from both parties like the idea.
“I was very pleased,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth. “It takes the sting out of the situation where a lot of kids come out of one community.”
Committee member Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, said the plan had “real merit.”
When a local school loses funding to a nearby charter, the two schools “instantly become mortal enemies,” she said. The sending school “loses the assets and tools to improve” just when the need to compete is greatest, she said.
“When did we forget about the common good?” Daughtry asked. “I want to find a real funding method that’s fair.”
Another aspect of the current formula that has been criticized is that schools must pay for any student in their district, even if that student was previously home-schooled or attended private school. Caulk and other public school officials say that means the district never got state funds to educate that student, but will lose funding when that student goes to a charter.
Charter school advocates counter that all taxpayers finance local schools whether or not their children attended public schools.
The Education Committee intends to put forward a bill about a charter school funding formula, officials said.
“I’m just glad to hear the commissioner and the legislators are still looking at how this can be done more equitably without destroying the charter schools or having such a significant impact on the school districts,” said RSU 21 Superintendent Andrew Dolloff, representing Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel schools. Baxter officials say nine students are coming from that district. “If there is a way to do this, and have those options without harming the local schools, it could be win-win.”
Dolloff said his district set aside $50,000 to offset charter school costs. If all nine students go, that figure will be too low.
“It’s tough to predict the actual costs,” Dolloff said. “We were really shooting in the dark.”
Like other superintendents, he said there’s no way to actually lower their costs; they just have to absorb the blow, whatever it turns out to be.
That’s one reason he likes the idea of spreading out the costs among all school districts.
“That makes much more sense,” Dolloff said. “Everybody paying a little is more palatable.”
Dolloff also warned that charter school funding could get out of control when virtual charter schools are approved, something he thinks is likely. So far, no virtual charter schools have been approved by the state.
“Every community has dozens of home-schooled students,” Dolloff said. “Can you imagine three dozen home-schoolers electing to take virtual classes?”
For Baxter, this week’s firm enrollment figures are an important benchmark. The school must have at least 140 students to open; any fewer would be considered a “material change” to its proposal and it would have to go back to the Charter Commission for a new look at its contract and budget.
Even if the school reaches 140 this week, the figures are likely to change further since students can continue to enroll — or choose not to attend — right up until September, said Crean Davis, the Baxter board vice president.
Once Baxter officials have a list of student names, they will send those names to the sending school district and request the students’ files. The files will indicate whether the student has any special needs and help both the sending district and Baxter plan accordingly. Baxter Academy, for example, has not yet hired any teachers.
“There may be specific needs students, like English language learners, that we would have to address with special hires,” said Crean Davis.
In Westbrook, where 10 students are expected to go to Baxter, Superintendent Marc Gousse said he sees the charter school as just another opportunity for students.
“In a district our size, we certainly don’t want to see any student go,” said Gousse, who oversees the 2,500-student district. “But every parent has to do what they think is best for their child.”
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: