A group of Baltimore city charter schools has filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore city school system, alleging that the district's funding formula for charters violates state law and threatens their ability to serve thousands of students.
"We were hoping it would not come to this, but we've reached a point where we have to stand up for our children and families," said Danique Dolly, principal of City Neighbors High School, one of the schools that filed a suit Thursday in Circuit Court.
The schools say the district has not met its contractual obligations to charter schools, and a new funding formula announced this week would drastically reduce funding at 26 of the district's 34 schools, leaving more than one dozen of them struggling to pay for books and teachers.
The schools seek a monetary judgment of at least $75,000.
The schools are among the highest-performing in the city, and many have waiting lists: Afya Public Charter School, three City Neighbors charter schools, Green School of Baltimore, Patterson Park Public Charter School, Southwest Baltimore Charter School and Tunbridge Public Charter School.
Combined, the schools serve 3,600 of the district's 13,700 charter school students.
Dolly said in a statement that the city district is "backsliding from a more transparent system, where funds follow children to the classroom, to the old ways of controlling dollars and centralized decisions."
City schools CEO Gregory Thornton and School Board Chair Marnell Cooper said they had not yet reviewed the lawsuit but were "greatly disappointed" that it had been filed.
They said in a joint statement that the model proposed this week was an effort to "refine a model that ensures continuation of commensurate funding for all students and schools — charters and non-charters."
"It is unfortunate indeed that some charter operators have answered our invitation for continuing discussion by filing a lawsuit," they said.
The lawsuit is rooted in the annual dispute between district and charter leaders over the amount of money the district proposes to pay charters per pupil.
The formula presented by the school system this week proposed to fund charters based on the number of low-income students they serve, provide them with more cash in lieu of services, and charge them more administrative costs to reflect the district's expenses.
By law, the privately run public schools must receive cash in lieu of the services they don't receive from the district's central office, such as professional development. Charters are also responsible for paying for their own school buildings and maintenance.
This year, the per-pupil allocation came to $9,387.
Non-charter schools are funded similarly, but when central office services are deducted, they receive a little more than $5,300 per pupil in cash. They also receive additional funds for populations of students, like special education.
The district spends about $15,000 per student.
School officials have said a literal interpretation of the law would give charters about $13,000 per pupil, which the district cannot not afford. The city has the bulk of the state's charter schools, with 34 operating this year.
"We would immediately have to cease all services to charter schools — from transportation to special education" said Ryan Hemminger, the system's budget director, in an interview earlier this year. "It would be complete chaos."
City school officials say that applying the formula literally would also create inequities because charters would get money meant for populations they don't serve, such as special education students, and allow them to get many administrative services for free.
After the formula is applied, they say, non-charter schools would be left to shoulder the district's financial burdens.
But charter leaders say the district has provided no supporting evidence, also required by law, to support those conclusions.
For years, district and charter leaders have tried to negotiate around the state's charter law to come up with a number they can agree on. The law would require the district take off 2 percent of administrative costs, and give charters a per-pupil allocation based on its remaining revenue.
Gov. Larry Hogan, who has tried to increase the number of charter schools by rewriting the state's charter law, attempted to solidify that formula in new charter school legislation this year. The General Assembly approved a version of the legislation without it.
Keiffer Mitchell, a special adviser to Hogan on education, said the administration hadn't been briefed on the district's new charter funding proposal.
The Baltimore Democrat, a former state lawmaker, said the governor would expect charter schools to be funded in accordance with the state law, which was reinforced by a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in 2007.
"The governor remains committed to charter schools and making sure they're a thriving choice for parents not just in the City of Baltimore but across the state of Maryland," Mitchell said.
The charter schools do not specify how much per pupil they believe they are owed. Charter leaders say that's because the city district has not been transparent about its revenue and calculations.
In their lawsuits, they say the district "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."
Charter leaders say the district announced its new formula after rejecting an attempt to resolve the matter in mediation.
City school officials said they would propose a transition plan to mitigate the impact to the schools.