5 charter schools' funding uncertain

City system officials debate how much money to give

Lack of budget stalls planning

February 20, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Less than seven months before Baltimore's first wave of new charter schools is scheduled to arrive, the schools' operators still do not know how much money they will receive from the city school system -- leaving them unable to hire teachers, sign leases for buildings and secure grants.

City school officials have been grappling for months with how much public funding to give the five charter schools opening this fall across the city. The schools will be funded by taxpayer dollars and held to state performance standards, but will have autonomy in areas such as whom they hire and how they teach.

School officials say they are trying to come up with a funding formula that will satisfy the charter groups without harming the system, which is recovering from a $58 million deficit. But the uncertainty about funding has frustrated some of the charter groups.

"Everything that we need to do that has any relation to the budget, we can't do," said Erika Brockman, a parent who heads a group that plans to open a Southwest Baltimore school in September. "You've got to have a budget. It's ridiculous."

The city school system spends an average of $9,585 per child in its regular schools, according to the state education department. Charter school operators are hoping to receive close to that amount.

Operators said the system, which has not formulated its budget for the 2005-2006 school year, has floated a plan to give charters about $4,200 in funding per child, in addition to services it will provide -- a figure the charter groups say is much too low.

"All we want is parity," said Bobbi Macdonald, president of City Neighbors Charter School Inc., which is planning a school in Northeast Baltimore. "Not one dollar more than the other public schools. We'll even take a couple of dollars less."

In addition to the funding problem, there have been other hurdles as the system adjusts to this new breed of school enabled by a 2003 Maryland law.

There was a misunderstanding about prekindergarten (the charter groups were counting on public funding, but the system says they will have to find private sources), and an appeal to the state school board by a Patterson Park charter school group that contends that the city school board is dragging its heels about completing the school's charter, or contract.

However, the charter groups say funding remains their biggest concern.

It's a weighty issue for the school system as well, school officials said. The decision about how much money the five charter schools receive might also affect how much the system will have for seven existing schools -- the semi-autonomous New Schools Initiative programs, which were recently granted charter status.

David Stone, the system's director of charter schools, said he has not been able to tell operators how much money to expect because the system has not decided what level of nonfinancial support -- such as human resources and special-education services -- it wants to provide for charter schools. The operators say that the more money they receive, the more freedom they will have to work toward their individual goals.

The community members launching the Patterson Park school applied for $7,500 per pupil, said Stephanie Simms, the group's president. They want that funding to be money they have control over, not $7,500 in services provided by the system, Simms said.

"We would like the autonomy of picking and choosing what we want the district to do for us," Simms said. "The more funding we get, that's money that we're giving back to the children."

Stone said he will work in coming weeks to negotiate a solution that satisfies the school board and gives the charters the flexibility they are seeking.

"My hope is that it will be resolved in the next two weeks," Stone said Monday. "We want to make sure we're fair both to the charter school operators and to the children who will be going to our traditional schools."

Charter groups say time is running out for many things they need to do before the schools can open, from obtaining loans for building renovations to deciding how much to charge pupils for uniforms.

"We are scheduled to start up construction on March 1," said Macdonald, whose school will be housed in a building attached to Epiphany Lutheran Church that needs to be made accessible to disabled people. "We can't do anything until we have these successful negotiations."

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