Mohawk versus charters: District to rally against tuition hikes

Recorder Staff
Last modified: 2/9/2016 10:03:34 AM
BUCKLAND — Facing a 15 percent increase in mandated payments for charter school tuition, Mohawk Trail Regional School District officials say the state funding formula for charter schools is undermining rural school systems like Mohawk.

With full support from the School Committee, board member Martha Thurber has sent Gov. Charlie Baker a letter saying rural school systems are facing the double whammy of rising per-pupil school costs as the general student enrollment declines — and then having a state mandate to pay that higher per-pupil cost for charter school tuition, regardless of what it cost the charter school to educate its students.

As Mohawk’s student population decreases, its per-pupil costs rise, because of fixed costs and the teachers who must still be paid to educate a smaller number of students. But the more money Mohawk spends per-pupil, the more it must pay for their charter school tuition, according to state regulations, requiring sending districts to pay their own per-pupil-cost for each charter school student. Next school year, for instance, Mohawk will pay $843,834 for 52 charter school students, which is a $108,834 increase over what was paid this current year.

“The largest increase in tuition isn’t that more kids are going to charter schools, but that the state now charges us more tuition for charter schools,” Thurber told the Mohawk Trail Regional School District Committee recently.

Citing the governor’s recent comments touting the success of the charter school movement, Thurber asked Baker: “Why not advocate for Massachusetts to adopt the charter school model for ALL of its public schools? Why not give ALL public schools greater flexibility in curriculum choices, the hiring/firing of teachers, the setting of school hours. … Why continue to fund two competing systems of education if one system has been shown to be so vastly superior?”

Every year, said Thurber, the district has to defend its budget before the voters at eight annual town meetings. If successful, Mohawk then sends nearly 4 percent of the approved budget to charter schools — “none of which is located in any of our towns (or) is required to come before the citizens of any of our towns to defend its own expenditures.”

“Instead, our district is simply mandated to turn over our per-pupil cost to the receiving charter school, with no analysis of that charter school’s actual cost-per-student,” said Thurber. The outcome is that the loss of  students to charter school or other out-of-district school drops Mohawk’s enrollment and increases its per-pupil cost — the loss of that student renders no savings to in terms of teachers’ salaries, benefit and retirement costs, facilities and operating costs.

For instance, she said, if five Mohawk students leave for a charter school, Mohawk would pay about $85,000 for their tuition. “But five students are not enough for us to cut a teacher, or reduce staff,” said Thurber.

Saying there are 37,000 students on waiting lists for state charter schools, Baker favors lifting a cap on charter school expansion.

School Committee Chairman Kirby “Lark” Thwing of Hawley said one task of Mohawk’s new Strategic Planning Task Force will be to focus on what Mohawk needs to offer students to be competitive with what the charter schools offer — including the arts, music, sports — everything that impacts student life. “How do we maximize the things that are important to student education?“

Thwing said one goal will be to bolster what enhances education while looking to pare down fixed costs, pertaining to buildings, utilities and insurance, which have no direct connection to student education. “I’m hoping that, when we come out of the strategy process, we have an idea of how to reduce these costs,” he said.

“We need to do a demographic study of our towns to determine: Where are the kids living and where are the schools in relation to the kids? Where are the kids in our towns that don’t come to our schools?” said Thwing. “As we roll into the future, where are the kids likely to be? It’s less likely, in our area, to build a new house than to fill a house when someone leaves it. So how many young families are likely to be filling other homes?”

Thwing agrees with Thurber that, if the charter school model is the right thing, that education model should be used for all state public schools. “Don’t give one the benefit over the other,” said Thwing.

Conventional school districts are required to run under a different set of rules than charter schools, including a mandate to provide education for students with the most difficult special needs challenges.

“Rules for charter schools are rigorous, but nobody is enforcing them,” says Thwing. He said charter schools start with a large contingent of local students but “winnow them down” over time. “Charter schools need to be responsive in terms of ESL (English as a second language), low-income and special education students,” said Thwing. “In our part of the state, they’re not.”


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