My Turn/Wright: Charter schools financed on other students’ backs

Published: 7/1/2016 5:56:03 PM

I disagree with John Bos regarding the fairness of charter school funding. I contend the funding formula is flawed, that it reduces a local districts’ ability to compete with charters, that the state has failed to live up to its obligations for reimbursement and that charter schools spend public money without local accountability.

Mr. Bos claims the financial impact of charters on our local schools is because district budgeting practices are “bulky” and “inflexible” rather than the simple fact that fewer students does not equal fewer costs for many budgetary reasons.

When a student attends a charter school, the local district is assessed three charges. The first component — the Foundation Base Rate — is generated by dividing the foundation budget for the sending district by the foundation enrollment after backing out the foundation rate for out-of-district SPED students. Foundation base rates for sending districts in Franklin County FY17 range from $7,875 to $13,150.

The second component is the Above Foundation Spending Rate. In this component, what we put toward our local schools above the foundation base rate is also factored into the tuition calculation. In Franklin County, this above foundation spending rate for FY17 ranges from $633 to $17,316.

The third component of the Charter School tuition calculation is the Facilities Tuition Rate. This third component is derived from average statewide spending on schools buildings which for FY2017 was calculated at $893 per student.

The total of these three components result in tuition rates paid by Franklin County towns to charters, ranging from $9,401 to $29,007 per student.

While there is only one charter school physically based in Franklin County, Mr. Bos’ My Turn column fails to reveal the full impact that charter schools have on local districts in Franklin County. In FY17, 330 students will attend four charter schools in the area — 216 students to Four Rivers Charter School in Greenfield, 80 students to Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School in Hadley, 31 students to Pioneer Valley Performing Arts School in South Hadley and three students to Sizer School in Fitchburg, collectively taking with them $5,082,574.

While the state provides some reimbursement to districts via the charter school reimbursement formula, only $959,458 of this will come back to the districts and local districts will still lose $4,123,116 in funding. The charter school reimbursement formula was never designed to fully compensate local districts for the loss of students; however, the state hasn’t fully funded the reimbursements for two fiscal years. In FY15, the state provided only 69 percent of the required reimbursement and in FY16, only 62 percent.

Fewer students does not mean savings. For sending districts such as Conway or Deerfield, only three students have chosen to leave each local elementary school for the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School. Each district is losing approximately $36,000 to the charter after state reimbursement. There are no economies of scale by simply losing three students because they can’t eliminate a position. However, they each lose the equivalent of an entry-level teaching salary because three fewer students, scattered among grades K-5, have left — certainly not the result of “bulky” and “inflexible” budgeting practices.

Another example is that Frontier will lose 44 students to three charter schools and $618,119 after reimbursement from the state. These 44 students are spread over grades 7 to 12, which means that each grade will have approximately seven fewer students. Using Mr. Bos’ logic, seven fewer students per grade should allow the school to reduce teaching and support staff; 44 fewer students should lower the utility and custodial costs for the school; and 44 fewer students should also somehow reduce long-term debt service on the school renovation.

This is flawed and ridiculous thinking. Forty-four fewer students taking $618,119 with them is equivalent to 9.5 teaching positions at an average FY15 district salary. Do seven fewer students per grade reasonably translate into 9.5 fewer teaching staff?

Mr. Bos blames public school districts for their inability to expand and contract with enrollment. He places blame on districts that renovated school buildings and now cannot reduce debt service on building projects that occurred long before charter schools appeared. He ignores the fact that publicly-funded charter schools are governed by boards of trustees who are not elected and whose charter school budgets do not go before town or council meetings for approval.

Charter schools are here to stay. In a rural area such as Franklin County, our local charter schools are accessible to those students whose parents have the means to transport their children to school or the means to pay for transportation. Equity and access are problems that the charter schools have not solved in our region.

Charter school funding results in the expenditure of public funds without elected representation, a flawed funding formula and the state’s refusal to fully fund the reimbursement formula. As long as the state continues to believe the foundation budget is an adequate measure of educational funding, charter schools should be given the foundation base rates only. Local districts should be allowed to keep all above foundation funding to improve our local schools so that we may offer comparable educational opportunities locally.

Charter Schools may provide valuable educational alternatives, but should not be funded at the expense of traditional public schools.

Susan Wright is finance director for the City of Northampton, former school business manager for Northampton Public Schools and resident of Northfield.

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