Ruling returns charter schools lawsuit against Baltimore to circuit court

A ruling by the Maryland court of appeals has breathed new life into a lawsuit filed by a group of Baltimore charter school operators who have long alleged that the district's funding formula for charters violates state law.

The schools had argued in a 2015 lawsuit that the district failed to meet its contractual obligations to charter schools and was not transparent or consistent in how it allocates funding for these schools. On Monday, the court of appeals sent the lawsuit back to the circuit court, following a stay, and ordered both parties to go through the discovery process.

Maryland law requires independently-run public schools to receive cash from the district's central office in lieu of the services they don't receive, such as professional development. Charter schools are also responsible for paying for their own school buildings and maintenance.

City school officials have said that the strict application of the charter funding formula would create inequities and tighten the district’s budget to the point that they would be forced to cut services to students in traditional public schools.

After winding its way through the courts and mediation efforts, former Baltimore Chief Circuit Judge Alfred Nance in 2016 halted the lawsuit’s progress by issuing a stay “pending administrative review of the parties’ dispute by the state board of education.”

The court of appeals decision Monday to send the case back to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City in order for the two sides to complete discovery, will give lawyers representing the charter school operators the chance to dig into the district’s budget documents.

“Discovery should proceed so that the Charter School Operators may receive more information and, either when the circuit court decides it has the information it needs or discovery ends, a more detailed stay order would be appropriate,” the decision reads.

After the stay order, the operators can go to the Maryland State Board of Education, which has the authority to resolve any dispute on the district’s funding of charter schools.

The district “won an important victory” in this ruling, said city schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster.

“We are pleased that the Maryland Court of Appeals agreed with City Schools that the State Board of Education, not the court system, has primary jurisdiction to decide whether the charter schools receive ‘commensurate’ funding,” she wrote in a statement.

There are 34 charters in Baltimore, and the schools involved are among some of the top performers in the city. The operators behind the lawsuit are: Afya Baltimore, Inc., Baltimore International Academy Inc., Baltimore Montessori, Inc., City Neighbors Charter School, Inc., City Neighbors Hamilton, Inc., City Neighbors High School, Inc., Creative City Public Charter School Foundation, Inc., Empowerment Center, Inc., Experiential Environmental Education, Inc., Kipp Baltimore, Inc., Patterson Park Public Charter School, Inc., Southwest Baltimore Charter School, Inc., and Monarch Academy Baltimore Campus, Inc.

“For everyone involved, we’ve been on what feels like a never-ending treadmill,” said Will McKenna, executive director of Afya Baltimore, Inc., which operates three Baltimore charters. “What we’re all looking for is the state board of education to give guidance and, more importantly, to make decisions about the proper implementation of the funding formula.”

A spokesman for the state education department declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

trichman@baltsun.com

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