The Baltimore school system has violated the terms of a contract with a charter school guaranteeing free utilities and maintenance through June 2008, documents show, a move that could leave the school unable to pay all its staff.
The system has decided to make eight charter schools that use its buildings pay for such services, causing leaders at some of the schools to scramble to find the money. One of the hardest hit is Southwest Baltimore Charter School.
Last year, the system signed a three-year agreement with the new school allowing it to operate in extra classrooms at James McHenry Elementary for $1 annually, with utilities and maintenance included. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently.
But last month, the school was notified that the system would charge it $420 per pupil for utilities and maintenance plus an "optional" $200 per pupil for custodial services, which the school previously covered mostly with volunteers. It then began deducting for all three services from its payments to the school.
The fees total $74,400, or 11 percent of the budget of Southwest Baltimore Charter, which serves 120 pupils in kindergarten through second grade. The school had finalized its budget months before it learned of the extra fees, three weeks before the new academic year began.
"You can't come in in August and tell us you're going to ding us for $74,000 for something that's a breach of our contract," said Erika Brockman, the school's executive director. She wrote in a recent letter to schools Interim Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston that the system "appears to be acting in bad faith and deliberately placing [the school] in financial jeopardy."
The new fees affect the eight charter schools operating in public school buildings, including KIPP Ujima Village Academy, Baltimore's highest-performing middle school. KIPP, which uses extra space at Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy, is currently operating with no contract, in part because it is disputing the fees.
David Stone, the city's director of charter schools, said the system is reviewing the fees and how they are calculated, particularly for the four schools - including Southwest and KIPP - that only use part of a building.
"We really want to emphasize that we want to work collaboratively with Southwest and any other charter school, especially those that are in our facilities," Stone said.
Asked about the provision in Southwest's lease that guarantees free utilities and maintenance for three years, Stone replied: "That is one reason why we are reviewing this, absolutely."
At Rosemont Elementary/Middle, a charter school run by Coppin State University, Principal Sandra Ashe said yesterday that she had not been informed of the utility and maintenance fees.
The development comes at a time of heightened tension between the school system and its charter and other independently run schools.
New Song Academy, an elementary/middle school which runs independently in Sandtown, notified parents last week that it would have to start its school year late because the system owed it tens of thousands of dollars and it couldn't afford to pay all its staff. The system came up with much of the money, and classes resumed as scheduled, only after inquiries from City Hall and from a Sun reporter.
This month, the state Court of Special Appeals ruled that the city school system must give charter schools as much money per pupil as it gives regular schools. Currently, the city spends the equivalent of about $11,000 per child in its regular public schools. Charter schools in Baltimore receive $5,859 per child in funds and the rest in services the system provides, such as special education and food.
The system has not yet said whether it would appeal the ruling, which it says would result in regular schools receiving less money. Because charter schools have already signed up for the services they plan to use this school year, some principals said the ruling would not have a major impact until next year, if it stands.
It is unclear whether the ruling would affect the utility and maintenance fees, since those schools choose to operate in public school buildings.
Jason Botel, executive director of KIPP Baltimore Inc., said the fees aren't the only new charges the system is imposing this year. His school is being charged $100 per pupil for the operation of Stone's charter school office. That's on top of a deduction of 4.5 percent of its budget, amounting to $488 per pupil, for central school system administrative costs, even though, he said, "there are a lot of central services that we just don't use."
KIPP Ujima Village is part of a national network of schools that have been successful in educating inner-city children. Botel said nearly all other KIPP schools have more control of their budgets than his. And he said KIPP schools elsewhere pay far less for utilities than what the city school system is charging.