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Pelham Elementary faces ‘devastating’ impact from budget shortfall



@dustyc123
Friday, July 14, 2017

PELHAM — School officials here say their district is facing a troubling budget shortfall after a local charter school erroneously listed two students as living outside the Pelham district last fall. The recent correction of that mistake, coupled with two more charter students who are now listed as part-time Pelham residents, means that the district must unexpectedly cover the $67,000 price tag for those students’ charter tuition this fiscal year.

“We found out eight days before the start of the new fiscal year that we don’t have 4 percent of our budget,” said Michael Morris, Amherst-Pelham Regional School District’s interim superintendent. The impact at Pelham Elementary School, he said, will be “devastating” if the state doesn’t help in some way. “It’s calling into question the sustainability of a school that’s really successful.”

Normally, Pelham would have received notice of the two students attending the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School after the charter school submitted residency information to the state in October. That October data, however, contained an error that was corrected in a subsequent February filing, according to Jacqueline Reis, a spokes-woman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Also in February, as is standard practice, the Chinese immersion school updated what they had previously reported in October to show that two additional students divided their time between Pelham and another town, Reis said.

Pelham school officials say the sudden loss of the funds for the equivalent of three full-time students means they must now figure out how to address that financial loss, beginning with a Pelham School Committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.

“Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when such situations will arise,” Reis wrote the Gazette. “We plan to increase our efforts to ensure that charter schools receive notice and further training regarding the importance of submitting correct residency information during the Oct. 1 data collection.”

Richard Alcorn, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, said he can’t be certain what happened because the school staff that inputs that data are away on vacation.

Alcorn pointed out that the Pelham district itself benefited from $379,968 in incoming school choice dollars in fiscal 2017, and that the state’s charter school law limits the financial impact of charter schools on sending districts by limiting total charter school tuition payments to 9 percent of a district’s net school spending. Alcorn also made the case that the loss of students due to changing demographics in Hampshire and Franklin counties has a far greater impact on school budgets than the region’s charter schools do.

Charter school funding has long been a subject of debate in Massachusetts, and Morris said Pelham’s situation is made worse by the fact that state lawmakers have not fully funded charter school reimbursements for sending districts in recent years. When the school funding formula is fully funded, the state is supposed to reimburse school districts for 100 percent of net increased tuition costs in the first year that a district student goes to a charter school and 25 percent for the next five years.

Lawmakers, however, have since 2012 failed to appropriate full funding for charter reimbursements, which were underfunded by $35.3 million in fiscal 2015 and $47.1 million in fiscal 2016, according to the nonprofit Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. Because of the dip in appropriations, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been funding the first year of net tuition increase but not the remaining years, Pelham School Committee Chairwoman Cara Castenson said.

In smaller districts like Pelham, where there is already only one teacher per grade, the loss of just a few students can result in a big hole in the budget. Working around that hole will be the challenge Pelham School Committee takes up Wednesday morning.

“There’s no way to manage once we’ve signed all contracts and done our budgets,” Morris said, adding that 80 percent of the district’s costs come from those already-signed staff contracts, and that the district has already significantly reduced supply and other expense lines for fiscal 2018. “It’s hard to keep small schools financially feasible and sustainable.”

Castenson said a 4 percent budget cut would have been hard to swallow even with a year’s notice, let alone with such little forewarning.

“We knew that a handful of students could have drastic implications for the budget,” Castenson said. “Coming out of the blue like this, it’s going to be difficult.”

In order to lessen the impact, Castenson said the School Committee would likely ask the state to consider this fiscal year as year one for the students erroneously left out of the district. For Wednesday’s School Committee meeting, which will take place in the library of Amherst Regional Middle School, the agenda includes a vote on a letter to the education department regarding “Charter School Costs.”

“If the state could consider it, because of the late notice and that reporting error, as year one, we wouldn’t take the hit this year and we could try to plan,” Castenson said.

That, however, doesn’t seem likely, according to the state’s education department.

“We don’t have authority to provide reimbursement beyond what is provided for by law,” Reis said in an email when asked about that possibility.

Reis added that a similar situation can arise even when no error is made — if a family moved during the middle of the school year, for example, or any other reason a student might enroll in a charter school after the October filing deadline.

“School budgeting is inherently unpredictable,” Reis said. “There are a lot of variabilities every year.”

That isn’t likely to ease the worries of school officials in Pelham, however.

Morris said that the next step, if the department can’t help, may be to engage elected officials about what can be done. In the meantime, the district will have to look for some way to work around the unwelcome surprise that came.

“We’re going to have to talk about what we do in future years, and in a small school there’s just not a lot of places to go to look for efficiencies,” Morris said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.