After we published some questions for the school district and charter operators involved in a lawsuit over funding, representatives from both parties decided to answer. Alison Perkins-Cohen, the executive director of New Initiatives for the school district who has been working closely on charter funding, spoke on behalf of the school district. Bobbi MacDonald, the executive director of the City Neighbors Foundation and co-founder of City Neighbors Charter School, spoke on behalf of the charters. The other litigants in the suit authorized her to speak to me on their behalf. To their great credit, both sides have been extremely accessible and willing to talk.
Given the general concerns around transparency, and worries that the Kurt Schmoke-led mediation may leave the public in the dark, it's an encouraging sign to see that everyone seems pretty willing to speak openly on the record. There is a City Council meeting to discuss charter funding also scheduled for tonight.
The following Q&A has been condensed and edited slightly for clarity.
City Paper: What steps have the district taken to be transparent?
Alison Perkins-Cohen: In response to the charter operators' concerns about transparency, whether or not we were being responsive to the law, and with regards to them not having faith in the numbers we used to calculate per-pupil spending, we initiated "The Funding Sustainable Work Group" in October 2013. The group included charter operators, the charter-school advisory board, the ACLU, Advocates for Children and Youth, two traditional school principals, and district staff. The idea was to look at the existing charter-funding formula and break it down piece by piece, make sure we all really understood it and the methodology behind it, understood the rationale behind why we treated various items in various ways, and discussed as a group whether we thought it was a reasonable approach, and if not, why not.
The group met for two to two-and-a-half hours roughly every week between mid-October and January. That's a lot of meetings. In total there were seven people in the working group representing charter schools. In the meetings we started with revenue, we went through the methodology behind how we get the money, and we talked about if it made sense. We discussed the rationale for why we did things the way we did, we considered if there were alternative ways to handle them, and one by one we made our way through the budget.
We also hired an outside consulting firm, District Management Council, to conduct a study of the central services we provided, to see if there were more services that could be cashed out to charters. So we had that data in the meetings—a list of all the services that were provided and what those actual costs were.
There were, to be sure, a lot of uncomfortable conversations, but it seemed like progress was being made. But in mid-January, some charter operators came to my office and said they thought the group should be disbanded. Their argument was that we weren't grounding our conversations enough in the law, and that we were spending too much time focusing on other things. In my opinion, the purpose of the group was to have reasonable adults look closely at this information and to discuss it.
The terms [of the mediation] are still being worked out, but I can tell you that our key condition is that the meetings would have to be public. That is critical because this funding formula impacts all students. It has to be a public conversation. We're happy to share all of our information. We're not hiding anything.
CP: The charter operators say the method by which the district calculates per-pupil funding changes from year to year. How can the district ensure a formula that will be annually consistent, which is important to ensure its long-term viability?
AP-C: The funding formula has mostly stayed constant except during the last two years. Right now there are disagreements over the interpretation of the law. We want to have an annually consistent formula and we can create one.
CP: Has the amount taken off the top for charter students grown over the years? If so, why and where does that money go?
Yes, some of the line items have increased. One example is spending for pre-K. We're required by the state to provide pre-K to all children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, for homeless children, and for children needing special education services. We used to subsidize pre-K more with Title I funds, but that level of federal funding has gone down, so we've had to take more out from our general pool of unrestricted funds.
The cost of specialized transportation services has also gone up. This is partly because the cost of providing transportation has gone up, and it's also partly because for many years charters weren't being charged the full amount it took to provide the specialized services. It was an error, but now what they're required to pay better reflects what the real cost is.
CP: What is meant by "administrative services"? Is it all bookkeeping or record keeping?
AP-C: No, we're not just talking about bookkeeping—the 2 percent figure also includes providing actual services on top of record keeping. If you're a teacher that calls 911, school police will come. The district pays for those emergency services. There are other services we cover, like those associated with implementing state standardized tests. So we asked charter operators which of these services would you consider mandatory for the district to provide and which would you consider discretionary, and there was a lot of agreement. We didn't agree on everything, but there was a fair amount that people agreed should be provided by the district.
CP: Can you better explain what happened with the proposed funding formula from last month?
AP-C: It's now scrapped and we're all trying to move forward, but at the time we were trying to be responsive to the charter operators' demands to create a revenue-based model for charter school funding. The charter operators feel that by not having it based on a revenue model, we're infringing on their autonomy because we're making decisions about how the money gets spent at North Avenue. We're pretty happy with the current formula (which is considered to be a hybrid revenue/expense model) with some exceptions. When we released the now-scrapped proposal, we knew very well that it was not perfect, and that it held its own specific challenges, but we were trying to be responsive to their requests and to open up a conversation and go from there.
The following Q&A was with Bobbi MacDonald, who spoke on behalf of the litigants involved in the charter lawsuit. Those schools include Brehms Lane Elementary School, Patterson Park Public Charter School, City Neighbors Charter School, City Neighbors Hamilton, City Neighbors High School, Southwest Public Charter School, The Green School of Baltimore, Tunbridge Public Charter School, KIPP Ujima Village, KIPP Harmony Academy, Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, Baltimore Montessori Public Charter Middle School, Empowerment Academy, and Creative City Charter School.
City Paper: Many in the community have spoken out that the kind of formula charter operators are pushing for would bankrupt the district and harm other students. Currently, the state is commissioning a study to determine what an appropriate figure would be, which will be due by the end of October 2016. Given the ongoing study, what motivates you to pursue litigation before it's finished?
Bobbi MacDonald: This narrative, pushed out by the district, is false on several levels. The system is willfully misunderstanding what the law says. Among other things, the charter law gives the charter operator, not the system, responsibility for administration of the school. The system is responsible for data collection, authorizing/renewing, and advising on special-education compliance. Beyond that, it is supposed to be up to the charter operator to elect whether to take any other services.
With transparent accounting, effective financial management, efficient administrative processes, and a commitment to school-based (not central-office-based) funding, the system can fund all its schools properly.
While we plan to participate fully in the study commissioned by the legislature, we have been in this conversation for almost a decade around the funding formula. In the last two years, the district has publicly stated—again as recently as two weeks ago in a key stakeholder meeting—that they are blatantly "not following the formula." The lack of consistency, predictability, transparency, and partnership make the situation untenable.
Though the decision to litigate—in hopes of a real mediated process—came before the most recent proposed (and pulled) charter-funding formula, this recently proposed formula underscored the need for a legal process as the district would have implemented a highly irresponsible formula that would have been disastrous for charter schools and the city and would have had negative long-term financial implications for everyone involved. We simply cannot wait.
CP: Do you believe that charters should bear proportional costs for special-education students who are more expensive to educate, or should those costs be borne primarily by traditional schools?
BM: This allegation has been directly and purposely misleading—a red herring by the district to muddle the conversation. Of course, we should all bear our proportional costs for special education students. We have always held that targeted special-education funds should follow the special education students. And, in fact, the current state law says so. The system has been unable or unwilling to give an accounting of that spending sufficient to understand how much is spent on a given category of students.
The state provides approximately $57 million in dedicated special-education funding. The city spends, according to its own budget, an additional $155 million. Where we have deep questions and concerns is whether the district is spending that additional money purposefully, efficiently, and effectively and whether schools could do more and better with those funds.
CP: What is the charter operators' ideal vision for the future? Are you looking for a way to improve and sustain the existing system, or would you like to see Baltimore's charter sector more closely resemble other urban districts?
BM: Charter operators of Baltimore are deeply committed to the idea of a thriving public school system with a rich portfolio of options, approaches, and choices for families. We believe, in order for this to happen, there needs to be an environment that allows schools and school communities (not the central office) to have power to make decisions and actively encourages innovation and creativity. A thriving charter sector is one powerful way to move our public school system toward that ideal. And our vision rests in supporting charters in Baltimore, which are largely homegrown, grassroots charters that have come together to create a collective ideal of public education—and giving them the conditions to allow that to happen.
Our struggle rests in partnering with a system that has consistent inconsistency, ongoing questions about its transparency and efficiency, an inherent call toward standardization, and a drive toward control—all elements that undercut autonomy, innovation, and creativity. We believe that, with a genuine and willing partner, we could actually do this work productively together.
We supported elements of the last bill because we believed that it could help clarify and establish autonomy, innovation, and creativity in charters through elements like providing permanent and consistent autonomies and ensuring consistent and dependable commensurate funding.
There are many charters in the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools that are clear about their commitment to collective bargaining and have no interest in undermining our teachers' current collective bargaining status with the Baltimore Teachers Union.
CP: Are there specific areas you believe the district is allocating too much money to, and if so, what are they?
BM: It is difficult to even answer this question. First, we (charter schools, traditional schools, and the public) need to have access to open books and full disclosure from the system. It would be hard to find anyone that believes that the district manages its money effectively or efficiently.
There are many examples that point to this. Just a few include: The school system started 2015 with a surprising and poorly explained $108 million budget deficit. Even though $27 million in funding was restored to Baltimore City, per-pupil allocations were not increased. City Schools spends more money per pupil on central office costs than any other district in Maryland by a significant margin and, despite being funded at a higher rate that most, is below average in money spent at the classroom level. Since 2010, the budget for student transportation has ballooned from $17 million to $45 million without explanation—including, according to news reports, $5 million spent on taxis.
CP: What specific freedoms would you like from the district that you don't currently have?
BM: This can be a complicated question as the answer can often vary depending on central office administration and their stance on any given day. In order to allow charters to really live into their unique missions and visions, the default stance of the district should be rooted firmly in autonomy. Right now, the system's general position is that a given charter school must look the same as a traditional school and follow the same system policy directives, even when the Board of School Commissioners approved a charter application to the contrary. Charters want to have protected autonomy over areas where a unique approved plan is already in place including curriculum, grading, scheduling, parent participation structures, procurement policies, and assessment.
CP: The district said they established weekly meetings in October 2013 to go through the budget and be transparent about what went into the charter formula, and whether any changes needed to be made, and how. Perkins-Cohen said the charters asked to end the meetings in January 2014. Is this true and why did that happen?
BM: I wasn't one of the operators involved in the meetings, but from what I understand it just wasn't working. They weren't giving us the information we needed at the level of transparency with which we needed it, and the talks broke down.
We did not end the meetings. We never walked away from the table. We asked for a pause in the general direction of the meetings because district staff were fixated [on] how much charters were paying for administrative costs and weren't talking about much of anything else. Furthermore, district staff weren't referencing the law. So we paused.