Councilman to introduce charter school funding resolution as debate intensifies

City Schools, charter leaders continue to battle over funding. Now, Baltimore leaders are getting involved.

 Members of the Baltimore City Council are calling on the school system to reconsider a proposed formula that would reduce budgets of several public charter schools.

Councilman Bill Henry, vice chairman of the council's education committee, will introduce a resolution Monday evening that calls for equitable funding of the city's charter schools -- several of which are at an impasse with the school district over a new way city schools CEO Gregory Thornton has proposed to fund them next year.

Last week, a group of five operators representing eight schools filed a lawsuit against the district for failing to fund the district's 34 charters in accordance with state law. You can read here how The Sun's editorial board believes this is a dangerous legal battle for the school system.

The resolution, co-sponsored by council members Brandon Scott, Mary Pat Clarke, Rikki Spector and Eric Costello, calls on the school system to "reconsider its inequitable proposed public charter funding formula to ensure that adequate funds are allocated to all Baltimore students in accordance with state law."

Henry said that he believes that the district's proposal misses the mark.

Henry, whose children attend a city charter school that is among those who filed a lawsuit, said he chose his students' school over Roland Park Elementary/Middle because it is closer to his home, allowing them to walk.

He noted that even if his children did not attend a charter, four of the 10 schools in his district are charters that enroll hundreds, if not thousands, of kids whose families he represents.

The district's 34 charter schools serve 13,700 students, and an alliance of operators say that there are 5,500 city students on charter school waiting lists.

The resolution echoes claims made by charter operators that a recently proposed formula from the district seeks to keep more money in central office instead of the classroom. It also points out the district's history of mismanagement over funds and operations.

"Education funds for our children are not making it to the classroom, and given past
accounting errors and accountability problems at North Avenue, public school families need
transparency to ensure that education dollars are following children," the resolution states.

Henry said that he hopes district and charter leaders can realize is that they are both working toward the same goal: more money for children.

“I hope this is resolved in a fashion where we are all united in dealing with the common enemy, which is insufficient funding from the state," Henry said.

"Right now, we are acting like crabs in a barrel, where the ones that are climbing higher are being pulled down by the rest. We don’t need to be like that. I understand that the school system is trying to build more bricks with less straw, but the answer is not taking straw from the schools that are doing well.”

The reason that the charter funding debate has escalated comes down to trust and the law.

From charter leaders' standpoint, the district's recently proposed formula breaks both.

City school officials have said that the new formula seeks to create an equal playing field for charter and non-charters. The district has sent out lengthy statements outlining arguments to that affect. You can read the latest one here.

Earlier this month, district officials presented a formula that seeks to fund charters based on the populations they serve next year, similar to how non-charter schools are funded now. A memo on the new formula can be found here.

Officials said that the formula would allow all schools to receive money for students they actually serve, like students with disabilities and ELL students, and eliminates the risk of schools getting more or less money than those populations cost to educate.

City school board Chair Marnell Cooper said that while the district has to fund charters in a predictable way, "that funding methodology can’t be at the expense of the 70,000+ students in our traditional schools."

City schools CEO Gregory Thornton has expressed the same sentiment, and has explicitly said that the district cannot afford to pay charters as much as they are asking for. 

Charter leaders, however, say that the proposal reflects another attempt by the district to present funding that undermines the law, and their missions to provide autonomous and unique programming to their students.

Charters have long complained that they have been subjected to arbitrary allocations that have them scurrying every year to figure out if they'll maintain their programs.

An excerpt from the lawsuit summarizes the basis of the charters' argument: "From year to year arbitrarily presented charter school operators with take-it-or-leave-it charter school per pupil figures derived using varying, or no, calculation methodology, inflated estimates of overall system enrollment, and unsupported and dubious financial and budget figures."

Per state law, charters receive cash in lieu of services that they don't receive from the central office and have to pay for themselves. The law requires that the district take off 2 percent of administrative costs, and distribute the remainder of its revenue evenly.

A 2007 Court of Appeals ruling affirmed the law and that charters were entitled to funding "commensurate" with that of regular schools, but does not define what that entails. 

The school system spends more than $15,000 per-student.

For years the charters and the district have negotiated a per-pupil allocation because leaders  on both sides have agreed that charter law, if followed to the letter, would essentially bankrupt the system.

This past year, the district proposed to give charters $9,300 per-student. Charter leaders rejected that amount, noting it was on par with what they received per-pupil in 2011, even though the amount of revenue in the district has increased. 

Non-charter schools are funded similarly, but when the district deducts the services they receive from the central office, they got a little more than $5,300 per-pupil in cash this year. They also get additional money -- between $640 and $1000 per-student -- for certain populations, like low-performing students and students with disabilities.

For perspective on how that shakes out, read an Op-Ed written last spring by a traditional and charter school principals here.

The district is proposing that it fund every student, charter and non-charter, in the district at the same level, and additional allocations for low-income and students who are English language learners.

District officials have maintained that it is an equitable formula that won't result in non-charter schools having to shoulder the financial burdens the district would face if it had to fund charter schools in accordance with the law. 

The base amount would be $5,210 per student for all schools, then schools would receive $4,605 for low-income students, and $4,573 for ESOL students.

A school could then be seeing a maximum amount of more than $14,000 per student. Or a minimum of $5,210.

On top of that, the district wants to charge them for more central office services they receive.

While the charter law calls for the schools to be charged 2 percent administrative costs, district officials contend that the actual costs of the services would more like 8 to 9 percent and charters have been getting some services for free. 

Operators have long argued, however, that they get services they neither want nor need, or that they could provide more efficiently themselves if given the cash.

The proposal threatens some charter schools' very existence, operators say, including eight of of the highest performing schools in the district.

More than two dozen schools would see funding decrease under this plan, some dramatically, by about 20 percent. Thirteen schools would barely be able to cover books and teachers.

One of the district's oldest and most popular network of charters, City Neighbors, would take a more than $1 million hit to its schools, $800,000 of which would be from one alone. The school held an emergency parent meeting last week, which drew more than 700 parents.

The school held a flash mob, e-mail style, sending hundreds of messages to the district headquarters at one time. From that meeting, the hashtag #saveourcharter was born.

It launched what is shaping up to be an intense debate in the city in coming months, as schools begin to mobilize throughout the city.

The district has planned a Sept. 26 forum at Merganthaler Vocational-Technical High School.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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