April 14, 2013

Districts pinched by charter schools

Public school superintendents struggle to calculate and accommodate the cost of charter schools on their budgets.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. 4/14 to corect Portland's school budget


The highest concentration of potential Baxter Academy students comes from towns in the following school districts. (A complete list is available at the Maine Charter School Commission website.)

Portland, 18

RSU 5 (Freeport, Pownal, Durham), 17

South Portland, 10

Westbrook, 10

RSU 21 (Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Arundel), 9

RSU 61 (Bridgton, Casco, Naples, Sebago), 9

RSU 51 (Cumberland, North Yarmouth), 7

RSU 6 (Buxton, Hollis, Limington, Standish, and Frye Island), 7

RSU 14 (Windham, Raymond), 6

Gorham, 6

Source: Baxter Academy

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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