Charter school issues land in state's lap

Board asked to resolve autonomy, cash questions

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

Three charter school operators asked the Maryland Board of Education yesterday to resolve disagreements with Baltimore and Prince George's County school officials over how much autonomy and public money the independently run schools should receive.

Arguing that the school systems are undermining the independent nature of public charter schools by giving them too little funding, lawyers for the charters asked the state board to determine how much money the schools are entitled to.

"This is a statewide issue that requires a statewide answer," said Will DuBois, an attorney for City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section incorrectly reported the amount of money the Baltimore public school system would withhold from charter schools in exchange for providing special education services. The school system plans to keep $1,864 for each pupil enrolled in a charter school.

Lawyers for the city school board, however, argued that the state does not have the authority to prescribe how much money systems should give charter schools.

The issue threatens to derail the schools' scheduled openings this fall, some operators said. The groups have received conditional approval from the system, but have not signed contracts that would enable them to lease buildings, obtain loans and hire staff members.

"We are all running out of time, and if [the state board] does not step in to help mediate this, there will be no charter schools in Baltimore," said Stephanie Simms, president of Patterson Park Public Charter School.

A lawyer for the state board said it understands the need to act quickly and intends to make a decision by next month. Any decision could have an impact on how much freedom is given to charter schools in Maryland.

The first wave of schools to be approved since Maryland passed a charter schools law in 2003 include five in Baltimore and one in Prince George's County. The schools get taxpayer money but have more autonomy than other public schools.

In Baltimore, school officials have proposed giving charter schools $8,650 per pupil in cash and system-provided services - the amount they say is spent on children in regular elementary schools. Charter operators say they need $7,500 of that amount in cash to be effective, but the system wants to give them about $5,000 in cash and the rest in services.

Charter operators would prefer more control. Under the plan, the system would withhold $11 per pupil for the work done by city school Superintendent Bonnie S. Copeland. For special-education services, $148 per pupil would be withheld.

Yesterday's discussion revealed a multitude of unresolved issues about the relationship between charter schools and school systems.

Lawyers debated the legislature's intentions regarding funding for charter schools. One board member asked if construction money should not be included in a charter school's share of public money, and another fretted about what kind of control charters should have over teachers and principals who technically will be school system employees.

The board appeared to recognize the difficulty of resolving so many questions. Said state school board President Edward L. Root: "I think we're building a case that somewhere down the line the legislation's going to have to be revisited."

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