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

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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

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."

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