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City Council probes school officials on charter impasse

City Council members grilled school system officials about the impasse over charter funding Wednesday night.

The Baltimore City Council peppered school system officials with questions Wednesday night about the discord over funding between the district and its charter schools.

The district and charter schools have been at odds for years and generally held closed-door meetings to hash out agreements. But a formula proposed by city schools CEO Gregory Thornton last month that would have cut funding to 26 of the 34 charters. The charter operators have sued the district, claiming the funding process has lacked transparency and has not followed state law.

Amid the uproar, Thornton scrapped the proposal. He and other system officials said the move was made "in good faith" and that they expected it would prompt the charters to drop the lawsuit.

But the charter operators said they intend to go forward with the suit.

Will McKenna, co-chair of the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools (formerly the Coalition of Baltimore Public Charter Schools), said the district's statements about the lawsuit have been dishonest and have generated concern about the tone of the coming talks.

"It feels very challenging for us to have either facilitated discussions or make steps toward mediation when on these core issues we have disagreements," he said.

Allison Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the school system's Office of New Initiatives, said the district still plans to withdraw its proposal even though the charter schools are moving forward with their lawsuit.

"We did so in good faith, and it was our understanding that they were going to drop the lawsuit," Perkins-Cohen said. "We're still hoping that will happen, so that we can have this facilitated process."

This week, three more charter operators joined the lawsuit against the school district, bringing the number of schools suing the system to 14. It's unclear whether the talks will include those schools who are part of the lawsuit.

Councilman Bill Henry told school system officials, who said an unnamed intermediary had informed them that the suit would be dropped, that they should "drop that point from future public conversation."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has asked University of Baltimore President and former mayor Kurt Schmoke to step in to bring the two sides to an agreement.

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector asked at the council hearing why the negotiations are nonbinding.

"If mediation is an outlet and an opportunity, and it isn't binding, what does it accomplish?" Spector asked.

"We're still working out the parameters of an agreement, but the facilitation is not binding," Perkins-Cohen said.

Perkins-Cohen said the district has begun planning negotiations with Schmoke. She said the district wants the talks to be public, and noted that the recent impasse demonstrates that closed-door negotiations have not worked.

A work group that included representatives from charter and non-charter schools had met for months to come up with the most recent proposal, Perkins-Cohen said.

The proposal would have funded charters based on the populations they serve.

"It's not as if there haven't been a group of smart people working on this for a long time. The reason we haven't had a solution is because it's hard," Perkins-Cohen said. "This is something that impacts all students, and we feel like the information should be available to everybody."

Under state law, charters receive cash in lieu of services that they do not receive from the central office.

The law would require that the district take off 2 percent of administrative costs, and give charters a per-pupil allocation based on its remaining revenue.

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

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

For years the charters and the school district have negotiated the allocation because both sides agreed that the charter law, if followed to the letter, would essentially bankrupt the system.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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