Budget mess befuddles charter-school planners

Charter-school operators are finishing up the details of their five-year operating budgets, a tough task given that lawmakers are still wrangling over exactly what kind of school-funding charters are to receive over the next two years (see here).

State law requires charter schools to submit five-year budget forecasts but school operators, confused and fearful for the future of their schools, can only guess at how to complete these. Many say their schools won't make it anywhere near five more years if the state charter-school financing approved by the Ohio House becomes law. Adding to the uncertainty are Ohio's declining economy and falling state revenues (see here).

House-approved spending levels would send the 350 students expected to enroll this autumn in Cleveland's Entrepreneurship Preparatory School (see here) back to what John Zitzner, the school's founder and president, calls the "dropout factories"-his name for most of the city's public district schools. The vast majority of his students are from families living in poverty. Almost every student receives a subsidized lunch.

A $400,000 loss in state funds would devastate the school's education program. "Of the 145 (public district and charter) schools in Cleveland, 15 are effective or excellent and we're one of them," he said. Instead of pushing ahead to establish another 10 schools in the next 20 years, Zitzner figures his school would be out of business in a year if proposed spending cuts are left intact.

Charter-school leaders are so focused on money issues that they have sometimes lost sight of other draconian provisions being considered by lawmakers, such as changes to teacher licensure requirements and changes that would require charter facilities to comply with Ohio School Facilities Commission design specifications. This, despite the fact they receive not one dime from the state for facilities.

The proposed building design rules would be a serious blow, said Catherine West of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (see here). Charter schools already must meet the highly qualified teacher provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but a change being considered by state lawmakers would require instructors to teach only in the grade levels and subject areas covered by their licenses. This would hurt short-staffed charter schools and make it impossible for great teachers from programs like Teach for America (see here) or the New Teacher Project (see here) to work in Ohio's charters.

"If my license is only in chemistry, I couldn't teach math no matter how qualified I am," West said. "I'm not hearing schools talking about this because of funding worries."

Money has been front and center since Gov. Strickland's education plans were introduced in February (see here). When the House approved its version of the budget, it included $147 million less for charter schools (see here). Most of the proposed reductions are for e-schools, but brick-and-mortar operators are preparing for substantial cuts also.

"We're confidant the Senate will be able to push back but to be prudent we're figuring 10 percent reductions on state funds," said Thomas Babb, treasurer of Constellation Schools (see here), a group of 16 schools in Cuyahoga, Lorain, and Richland counties. Constellation has an academic performance record that most urban schools-district or charter-would envy. Still, under the House education-spending plan, the organization's school in Parma would lose $1.5 million, a third of its operating budget.

Constellation has a $30 million annual budget and employs 420 teachers, administrators, office staff, maintenance staff, and other workers.

The state's moribund economy is also a worry. "Even if we get a budget bill passed the way we want to see it, we don't know what the future will hold as far as the economy goes," Babb said.

Particularly unfair, he said, is public district schools getting average seven percent funding increases while many public charters are being cut. "If we were treated the same as traditional public schools we wouldn't complain," he said.

Marty Porter, director of the Toledo School for the Arts (see here), said the school, which has a state rating of Excellent, is looking at having to more than double its private fund-raising at a time when philanthropy is down.

"I don't want to build a budget on what we think we might be able to raise," he said.

Right now, Porter is looking at cutting all transportation, furniture and equipment purchases, a second principal, teaching aids and raises for teachers. If the drop in state funding for his school is more than $500,000, he would have to reopen all teacher contracts for renegotiation.

"Our teachers already make $6,000 less than the starting salaries for Toledo teachers," (about $32,000) he said.

Andrew Boy, who heads Columbus Collegiate Academy (see here), one of two Columbus charters sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, is planning for a budget with five percent less state money. Because, Boy said, he will not compromise on curriculum, the shortfall will have to be made up with increased fundraising. "If it's more than that," Boy said, "we'll have to move quickly to adjust during the summer."

The uncertainty is also muddying expansion plans. The school has approval for a $1.35 million loan to buy and refurbish a former public school near downtown. The lender, however, is holding up making the loan pending the final version of the state budget.

"This building is perfect but we can't move on it because we have no idea what is going to happen," said Boy.

Schools have been cutting for months as the economic news becomes bleaker. "I just received an email from our treasurer this morning informing me that I need to make a plan B budget that reflects an additional $125,000 less for expenditures," said Hannah Powell, the principal of KIPP Journey Academy (see here), the second Columbus charter school sponsored by Fordham. "I already cut the budget by $120,000 a few months ago...(and) $240,000 less in expenditures is devastating. I am in the process of solidifying my staff, making preparations for the building, and ordering curriculum as we expand, and this lack of clarity has us at a frustrated standstill."

What is clear is that demand for charter schools continues to increase. At Columbus Collegiate Academy, enrollment is expected to grow from 49 students to 105 and there still will be a waiting list. At KIPP Journey Academy, autumn enrollment now stands at 105, up from 63. The school has a goal of 135.

Zitzner's Entrepreneurship Preparatory School is adding a second school, which would more than double enrollment to 440 students. Constellation Schools is projecting an enrollment of 3,300 students this fall, up from 3,151 this year. The Toledo School for the Arts has 529 students enrolled for the autumn term, up from 508 this year. The school has nearly 100 students on its waiting list.

"We are getting lots more questions asking if we are okay. Are we still going to be here? The mood for parents is more panicked," Toledo School for the Arts' Porter said. "They're worried we're going to be cut off at the knees."

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