With prospect of more charter schools, rural educators see greater risk

  • Gill-Montague Regional School District Superintendent Michael Sullivan Recorder Staff/Tom Relihan

  • Students work on a history project at Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield in April. Recorder Staff/Tom Relihan

  • Buoniconti

  • Chia-Wen Huang, a Chinese teacher at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, gets her room ready. FOR THE RECORDER/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Richard Alcorn, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, in front of the school in Hadley. FOR THE RECORDER

Recorder Staff
Published: 7/12/2016 11:12:30 PM

GREENFIELD — Amid a statewide debate over proposals to allow more public charter schools to open, local educators are concerned about the effects that could have on rural districts, although charter school leaders say those concerns are overblown.

Charter school proponents, who include some top state officials and business-backed interest groups, want to see 12 new or expanded charter schools per year in Massachusetts over the current 120-school limit. They’ve proposed a referendum to that end for November’s election. At the same time, a counter-referendum is being proposed by those who oppose lifting the cap.

For local school superintendents, more charter schools mean more students leaving their home district, taking much-needed revenue with them. In Franklin County, where school districts are spread out over a large, rural region and enrollment is declining, public school administrators are worried introducing more charters to the mix could torpedo their already fragile budgets.

Rural districts can be defined as those with fewer than 1,000 students, or which serve towns with fewer than 10 students per square mile, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Greenfield is the only district in the county that doesn’t fall within that range, but the Greenfield School Committee nonetheless voted last year to oppose charter expansion.

Family option is at the heart of the charter issue.

Proponents say increasing access to charter schools is about allowing families to have options for where and how their children receive their education, while opponents, including traditional school leaders and teacher unions, say they siphon tax money out of traditional schools, undermining their quality and existence.

Still, with more than 30,000 students on waiting lists for seats in charter schools statewide, there appears to be an appetite for more of them.

Most of those seats are in the more urban eastern part of the state, where the debate is fiercest.

Franklin County

Franklin County currently has just one charter school: Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield, which serves grades 7 to 12. The waitlist there is 74 students.

The next closest schools are Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School in Adams, Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Easthampton, Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley and Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley.

Those “charter schools are making an already difficult situation even worse,” said Mohawk Trail Regional School District Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, whose district pays out more than $800,000 a year to charters.

Buoniconti said the state’s School Choice program is already giving local parents plenty of options for their children’s education — among existing traditional public schools. Under Choice, students can opt to attend neighboring public schools and their home district pays some of the cost, so the money stays within the traditional school network. Fewer cities and towns in the eastern part of the state, where the charter debate is fiercest, have adopted School Choice than have towns in central and western Massachusetts. In the urban eastern end of the state parents unhappy with their local schools seem to favor charter schools.

“Our parents already have choices as there are, and adding charter schools ... they’re draining from our already lower numbers and costing us a lot of money,” said Buoniconti. “For Mohawk, it’s about 3 to 4 percent of our school budget that goes to charter schools.”

Can’t make the cuts

If the cap is lifted and more students “charter out,” many local administrators say their schools won’t have the option of downsizing amid decreasing enrollment.

Gill-Montague Superintendent Michael Sullivan noted rural districts like his and Buoniconti’s just don’t have the economies of scale that higher enrollment numbers create in larger urban districts, so it’s generally more expensive to run them, per pupil.

Regardless of student population, they still have to offer — and pay for — certain fixed services, like administrators, school nurses, transportation and special education services, which can’t be easily scaled back. Instead, they may be forced to increase class sizes as cuts are made — an undesirable trend in education that can affect how much attention each student receives.

Gill-Montague paid out roughly $856,000, or 4.7 percent, of this past year’s budget to charter schools for the 70 district students who attended them, Sullivan said. The Gill-Montague District enrolled a total of 947 students during the 2015-2016 school year.

“There are almost no costs eliminated by losing a small number of students,” he said. “The costs don’t decline, but the revenue does.”

If fact, Sullivan said, Great Falls Middle School has just one subject area teacher per grade and would not be able to reduce a teacher regardless of how many students it loses unless it got to the point where teachers began teaching multiple grades.

“That would not be able to occur until we lost about a third of our students in at least two grades,” Sullivan said. “At the high school level, we made reductions like this last year and reduced staffing down to two (English) teachers, two social studies, three science and three math. As with the middle school we could make almost no more cuts in these areas without drastic reductions in enrollment.”

State reimbursement

The state gradually reimburses districts for part of the cost of sending students to charters over six years, but critics say it isn’t enough. The district is supposed to receive a reimbursement of 100 percent of the cost in the first year, then 25 percent for each of the next five years. That funding formula, however, hasn’t been fully funded since 2012. This fiscal year, only 63 percent of the total reimbursement was paid, according to DESE.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a charter school supporter, wants to reduce that reimbursement period to three years, offering a full reimbursement the first year, then 50 the next year and 25 percent the year after that.

In South County, the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school district paid about $756,000 to charters in the 2015-2016 school year. Former Superintendent Martha Barrett, who left at the end of last school year, said despite the school’s 3 to 1 ratio of students choosing to enroll in the district rather than leave it, the amount of money leaving the district still exceeds that coming in.

That, said Patricia Cavanaugh, the district’s business manager, is because the district must send the full cost of each student who leaves for charter schools with them, but only receives a portion of the cost of educating the students received through School Choice, the state program through which students can choose to attend a public school outside their home district. “If both are seen as a choice for parents, then why aren’t they funded the same way?” she asked.

Howard Barber, the Greenfield school system’s business manager, agreed. He noted that students who leave the district through School Choice only cost the school that $5,000, but when they go to charters, the school is obligated to pay the entire cost for that student’s education — about $14,000 in Greenfield, according to DESE data.

Charters weigh in

Peter Garbus, the principal at Four Rivers, doesn’t dispute the district superintendents’ financial concerns. In fact, he agrees that district public schools have been historically underfunded and would like to see them receive more state aid.

The state’s Foundation Budget Review Committee found last fall that the state’s public schools are underfunded by about $1 billion.

“I appreciate that with declining populations and shrinking budgets, that all of that goes away as a loss,” Garbus said. “I understand that when you lose a student, you can’t just shut down a classroom, those numbers are so small.”

At the same time, he said, there doesn’t appear to be a strong push to increase the number of charter schools in Franklin County at the moment. “There’s been an increase in Springfield and Holyoke, but I don’t know of anyone who’s arguing for expansion here. There was a proposal in Montague two or three years ago, but it wasn’t approved.”

Springfield and Holyoke currently have hit their charter caps.

With far fewer charter schools in the area than in places like Boston, however, some school administrators, including Greenfield Superintendent Jordana Harper, worry that new charter developers could see that as an opening.

To the south, the Chinese immersion school in Hadley, where some Franklin County students go, has been pursuing an expansion, though the state has denied it. That school currently enrolls 439 students, according to DESE.

Proponents of more charters, including the state education secretary, James Peyser, say the state aid that districts receive should follow the students who choose to leave the district, since it is no longer educating those children.

“If a student leaves a district, school expenses leave as well, so it makes sense that the money leaves with the child. That’s just the way the system works, and how it should work,” said Marc Kenen, the executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public Schools Association.

Kenen said proponents of charter school expansion do recognize the somewhat unique plight of rural school districts when it comes to being unable to downsize operations easily as students leave for charters.

“We recognize there’s a problem there and we’re certainly open to conversation about how to address that,” he said. He noted the RISE Act that recently passed the state Senate — designed to try to strike a compromise on the issue — included a provision to provide a little extra funding for smaller districts to help absorb those impacts.

But opponents, including Barbara Madeloni, the president of Massachusetts Teachers Association, say traditional public education is already vastly underfunded as it is.

“We need to be talking about fully funding all of our public schools,” Madeloni said. “We shouldn’t be having a conversation about setting up a two-tiered system. Public education is foundational to our democracy.”

TOMORROW: A Senate alternative to a public referendum.

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.

You can reach Tom Relihan at: trelihan@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264
On Twitter: @RecorderTom


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