November 25, 2012

Public school district budgets take cash hit for charter school tuition

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- The creation of a new charter school and expansion of two existing ones in central Maine have some public school officials worried about the effect on their district budgets.

"The impact is that we have an expense we did not budget for or anticipate," said Brent Colbry, superintendent for Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54.

Under the state's charter school law, a student's district is responsible for financing the child's education at a charter school. The district still gets money from the state for that student, but not enough to cover the cost of the student, so some of the student's cost is still paid locally. The amount to educate a student is different in each distract and it's set by the state.

Colbry said that this year the district lost about $500,000 to the new area charter schools, Cornville Regional Elementary School and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences at Good Will-Hinckley.

He said that 42 out of about 2,800 students have left his district to attend the Cornville charter school.

"Forty-two students is not enough to reduce our expenses. We have no fewer teachers, no less busing, however we still have to pay a significant amount we did not budget for," he said.

Jennifer Lynds, a member of the SAD 54 school board, said that in addition to the financial drain, planning the school budget was difficult this year because the district was not told how many students were leaving until July, after the budget had been set.

She said the board usually starts planning the next school year's budget in March and approves it in June.

"I'm not 100 percent against charter schools, but the way the system is set up right now makes our ability to plan difficult. We need a budget and right now their is no line item in the budget for charter schools," she said.

"Next year, if they don't give us the numbers until June, that could be a half a million dollars or more that we have not accounted for," she said.

In smaller districts, the loss of even one or two students to charter schools can have an effect, said Ken Coville, superintendent of Anson-based School Administrative District 74.

"It really has a significant impact on the stability of enrollment, especially in small schools," he said. There are three students from that district enrolled at the charter schools. That was a $22,354 loss to the district's budget, Coville said.

Two of the students who left were previously home schooled, so the district was not receiving state funding for their education and had to pay the difference when they moved to charter schools at short notice.

"Right now there is no reliable way for a school board to know what their potential bill from the charter schools will be," he said. "Next August we might get a bill for 3, 10 or 30 students."

Both Cornville Regional Elementary School, which is kindergarten through sixth grade, and the MEANS Academy, a grade nine through 12 school, opened as charter schools this year and are planning to expand.

Cornville has 60 students. Executive director Justin Belanger said the school has approval from the state to grow to 90 students next year and add grade seven, and go to 120 students for the 2014-2015 school year, adding grade eight.

MEANS has 47 students from 27 districts in the state.

Executive director Glenn Cummings said the school would like to have 75 to 80 students next school year. He said it has already received 18 applications and that the application period will go through April, when he anticipates holding the first admissions lottery.

Last year the school received 47 applications, although it was approved to accept up to 52.

"I think its a good endorsement of our success so far that we already have 18 applications in the middle of November. It looks like we are trending toward having a lottery next year," said Cummings.

If that happens, he said students would have two weeks to accept admission and that their school districts would be notified immediately after.

Rachel Ohm -- 612-2368
rohm@mainetoday.com

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