Charter schools' funding raised

With lawsuit pending, city school board OKs new formula for payments

May 24, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,sun reporter

The Baltimore school board approved a funding formula this week that will give more money to the city's charter schools, easing some concerns in a long-running battle but leaving key details unresolved.

Several charter operators were concerned that they had not seen the formula before the board's vote Tuesday night. Once they saw the formula yesterday, the general consensus was that it's a step in the right direction.

How big a step, however, was up for debate. How the charters fare appears to hinge on how the school system calculates what it must pay for employee benefits.

"The system is acknowledging that there needs to be equity and fairness for the public school students that attend charter schools," said Bobbi Macdonald, president of the board at City Neighbors Charter School, one of two schools involved in a lawsuit over funding. "But I don't think they're there yet. They haven't reached equity. But at least they're trying."

The new formula will cost the system about $2 million more than it had budgeted to spend on charter schools for the next fiscal year. The school board has not identified where the extra money will come from.

Charters are public schools that run independently. By next school year, the city will have 22 charters enrolling about 5,200 students, more than in the rest of the state.

In a lawsuit before the state's highest court, City Neighbors and Patterson Park Public Charter School argue that they should get the same amount per student as the school system spends on regular public schools.

This academic year, the system spent the equivalent of more than $13,000 per child in all its public schools, though not all that money is directly spent on children. Charter schools received $5,859 per child in cash and the rest in services, such as special education and food.

Under the new formula, the charters will receive $8,415 per child in cash, but they will assume a major responsibility that the system previously covered: employee benefits.

According to school system documents, charters will pay $11,260 per employee for medical and other benefits, such as tuition reimbursement, as well as 7.65 percent of each employee's salary for Social Security and Medicare.

But questions remained yesterday among charter advocates about whether the $11,260 figure is subject to change. And operators of some charter schools with small class sizes said the benefits cost will leave them scrambling.

"It is not a good model for us, obviously," said Carl Stokes, director of operations for the Bluford Drew Jemison Math Science Technology Academy, scheduled to open in August. The all-boys middle school will give students intensive personal attention.

City Neighbors, which has 17 staff members serving 132 students, is projected to spend $1,746 of the $8,400 it receives per student on employee benefits. At Southwest Baltimore Charter, with a similar staff-student ratio, the figure is $1,785. That compares with $900 or less at charters with larger classes.

"It's a question of how you are going to spend your money," said Erika Brockman, executive director of Southwest. "We put our money into paying people. We believe that having a good teacher-student ratio ... makes our program special. I don't think this is going to make us change our mission, but we're really going to have to take the benefits into consideration."

Helen Atkinson, principal of Independence School Local 1, spoke at Tuesday's school board meeting, saying the benefits proposal she thought was under consideration might leave her small school unable to cover its operating costs. When she saw what the board approved, she was pleasantly surprised, she said.

"It's better than we thought it was going to be," said Atkinson, whose school converts to a charter this summer. "I don't think we could get anything better."

Atkinson said she is one of a number of charter operators who feel the schools should accept what the system is giving them and stop fighting the funding formula in court: "We want to be seen as an option that doesn't negatively impact other schools. If you ask for too much, you're getting more than your share of the pot."

The new formula requires charters operating in school system buildings to start paying rent: $3.22 per square foot, including custodial services, maintenance and utilities.

Another big-ticket item, special education, remains unchanged. The system provides special education at the charter schools. In the future, officials would like to adopt a formula paying schools based on the severity of individual students' disabilities and the services they require.

The formula was developed after consulting a national school finance expert and is similar to one the state approved for a charter school in Frederick County, city school system officials said.

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