City to waive charter-school fees

Decision affects utility, maintenance charges for four programs using parts of regular schools

September 16, 2006|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

Baltimore school system officials announced yesterday that they will waive utility and maintenance fees this academic year for four charter schools operating in portions of city school buildings.

The announcement came on the same day The Sun reported that the system was violating its contract with one of the schools, Southwest Baltimore Charter.

That contract, signed last year and good through June 2008, gave the school use of empty classrooms at James McHenry Elementary School for $1 annually with utilities and maintenance included.

But last month, the year-old school received notice that the system would charge it $420 per pupil for utilities and maintenance, plus an "optional" $200 for custodial services - amounting to $74,400, or 11 percent of its budget. The system then began deducting all three fees from its payments to the charter school, a public school that operates independently.

The fees left operators of the school, which serves 120 pupils in kindergarten through second grade, fearful that they wouldn't be able to pay all their staff. But yesterday, executive director Erika Brockman received a call from the system's interim chief executive officer, Charlene Cooper Boston, saying the fees would be waived.

"I'm stunned," Brockman said, shortly after getting off the phone with Boston. "It's like a $74,000 sigh of relief. It's pretty huge."

Maryland's charter school law, like most in the nation, leaves it to charter schools to find their own buildings. But public school systems often let charters use their extra space. Eight of the city's charter schools operate in public city school facilities, and four of the eight occupy entire buildings.

The other four - Southwest Baltimore Charter, KIPP Ujima Village Academy, Maryland Academy of Technology and Health Sciences and ConneXions Community Leadership Academy - use extra space in buildings housing regular schools.

For those four schools, system officials said, they will waive the $420 per pupil fee. The schools still will pay for their own custodial services, as they have in the past, either by purchasing the work from the system or finding vendors or volunteers.

Boston released a statement yesterday afternoon saying she has ordered a review of the system's leasing procedures with charter schools. Charter schools are still a relatively new concept in Maryland, the statement said, and "as with any new initiative, periodic adjustments become necessary."

While the review is under way, and "as a courtesy," her statement said, the system will waive rental, maintenance and utility fees this school year for the charter schools operating in only part of a building.

The statement said the system "remains a strong supporter of charter schools" and "leads Maryland in the formation and support of charter school education." Seventeen of Maryland's 24 charter schools are in Baltimore.

This month, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the city school system must give its charter schools as much money per pupil as it gives regular schools.

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