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Judge rules against city schools motion to dismiss charter lawsuits

Efforts by the Baltimore city school system to dismiss lawsuits filed by more than a dozen charter schools failed Friday after a Baltimore circuit court judge ruled against several measures to settle the cases out of court.

The ruling by Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Julie Rubin also squelches the district's efforts to have the lawsuits settled by the state department of education rather than in court. The lawsuits were filed last fall and allege the district fails to fund charter schools in accordance with state law.

Charter school operators lauded the judge's decision that came after more than two hours of arguments, a 45-minute recess, and a lengthy explanation. They said the judge's ruling validates prior court decisions, including a 2007 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that affirmed the charter funding formula outlined in the state law and required districts to provide the schools "commensurate funding" with traditional schools.

"We were confident that we would win today given that we'd won in the courts in the past," said Will McKenna, executive director of Afya Baltimore, Inc., one of the charter litigants. "We remain hopeful that the school system will stop fighting with us and start meaningful conversations that lead to resolution."

City schools CEO Gregory Thornton said that he was "disappointed" by the decision.

"We are disappointed that this matter is not being referred to the state board, which we contended has primary authority to define commensurate funding for schools—an issue with implications for education policy statewide," Thornton said in a statement.

Operators representing 14 charter schools began filing lawsuits in September alleging that the level of funding and budget transparency from the district breached their contracts. Friday's ruling also requires the district comply with discovery rules, charter leaders said.

By law, the independently run public schools must receive cash in lieu of the services they don't receive from the district's central office. Non-charter schools are similarly funded, but under the charter funding formula, charters receive about $4,000 more in cash.

City school officials have said that the strict application of the charter funding formula would strap its budget to the point of cutting services to non-charter school students.

An attempt to have the district and charters avoid court fell through last October. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked former mayor and current University of Baltimore President Kurt L. Schmoke to mediate negotiations between the two sides, but he withdrew a short time later after the parties reached an impasse on the conditions for coming to the table.

erica.green@baltsun.com

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