There is an advertisement airing on local television sponsored by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. As with a lot of the political-type advertisements, it gives the impression that there is no downside to the charter school movement. They say it’s free, open to all and implies that parents will be able to work better with teachers in a charter school setting.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not 100 percent opposed to charter schools. I also serve on the Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 board of directors and have children in the school system.
The most prominent misinformation in this advertisement is that charter schools are free. Most who live in the real world know nothing is free. The state approved not one but two charter schools, in Cornville and Good Will-Hinckley, that directly affect our district. If indeed charter schools were “free,” this wouldn’t have been a shortsighted plan.
This year SAD 54 paid out $455,098 to the charter schools in the area. The district was given the information in September, six months after the budget development started in March. The district did not know this expense was coming into play until July, and we were not given the enrollment for the two schools until after school started in September.
This year in March, we will begin development of the budget for 2013-14 school year. With the state approving higher enrollments for the two charter schools, we will be faced with guessing what the district will be paying out because, as it is set up now, the charter schools don’t have to share enrollment information until June. This is after the vote on the budget — not to mention the development of said budget.
As a board we are faced with possible tax increases that could be quite significant for the towns in our district, and we have to guess what we will pay out. I posed the question directly to Steve Bowen, the commissioner of education, in October regarding the difficulty boards across the state will face in not knowing enrollment for charter schools and how as a board we were going to responsibly put forth a budget that may or may not have to pay out as much as $750,000 to the charter schools in our district. To date there has been nothing said to address the matter.
As a board member I am frustrated to have to say: “Local taxes have to be raised because we will probably need the funds to cover the charter school expense.” It seems to me that it will be a hard sell at best.
Many who have spoken to me regarding this issue think that the district is able to cut teaching positions and/or bus runs to cover the cost since the kids are not being taught or transported by our district. The students that chose to transfer to the charter schools were spread out over many schools in our district, a few from each school and class. We have been unable to cut a position because it has been spread out. There are no fewer bus runs. We can’t turn the heat down or close up a classroom.
People also have been told that only state money that the district receives is affected and that local funds are not touched. This information is simply wrong. The cost for each child is calculated using a formula set forth by the state, and the district simply has to pay the money out to each school, minus a fee for the charter commission that last year amounted to $13,452. This includes transportation costs for each child even though the charter schools have limited or no transportation available.
The claim that parents are able to interact better with teachers at a charter school than at the traditional public school is subjective at best. Speaking from my personal experience in the district, I can say that when I have a concern or question for my children’s teachers I am able to reach them, meet with them and have conversations regarding my concerns. This was the case long before I became a board member.
Finally, charter schools are not open to all. They have a limited enrollment at this time, and a student will get in only if space allows. If the number of applications is greater than the approved enrollment, there is a lottery to see which child will be accepted. Not every child who prefers to go will be able to.
As a board member, citizen and parent I am concerned with the public not knowing the full scope and impact that the charter school setup has on our community. The valid concerns about our inability to plan go unanswered. Charging forward without looking at the problems in the current setup will doom the charter school movement to failure. Charter schools are not free. They simply are spreading the cost out in the form of higher local taxes for everyone.
Jennifer Lynds is a resident of Cornville and serves on the Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 board of directors.