Guest column Nancy Grossman: Where do charters fit in ed funding debate?

  • The Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public Schoolon Mulligan Drive in South Hadley. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 7/8/2019 10:35:23 PM

At the state Legislature’s early spring Joint Committee on Education hearing on various proposed K-12 funding bills, the stories from scores of school districts were depressingly familiar.

From New Bedford to Northampton, Lowell to Salisbury, districts reported inadequate staffing, increased class sizes, deferred maintenance and eliminated programs.

A 2015 legislative study determined that Massachusetts’ public schools are underfunded by $1 billion to $2 billion per year, and pending legislation, including the encouraging Promise Act, would bring some relief to at least the state’s poorest districts.

Noticeably absent from the hearings were representatives from the commonwealth’s charter schools, many of which report annual surpluses. Funded primarily by payments from students’ home districts, charters limit expenses in part by paying teachers less and, on average, serving fewer special-needs children than neighborhood schools.

Several items stick out in the charter school financial summaries available on the Department of Education website. Annual surpluses are often in the five figures, and expenses for boards of directors, staff travel and advertising are commonly in the tens of thousands.

Consider the 15 charter schools operating in the Pioneer Valley. The following annual surpluses are a five-year average from the fiscal 2013-17 school years. Most expenses are from fiscal 2017.

■SABIS International, Springfield. Almost $500,000 average surplus per year, with two years showing almost $1 million extra and $10 million cash on hand as of June 30, 2018. Board expenses: $31,000. Staff travel: $51,000.

■Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion, Hadley: $406,000 average annual surplus; $2 million over 5 years. Travel: $41,000. Advertising: $110,000

■Pioneer Valley Performing Arts, South Hadley: $109,000 annually; board expenses $32,000.

■Four Rivers, Greenfield: $131,000 annual surplus; $654,000 extra over five years.

■Baystate Academy, Springfield, opened in fiscal 2014: $1.5 million over four years

Of the 15 schools, two stand out — Holyoke Community, with an accumulated $5.2 million surplus over five years, and two-year-old Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual Academy, with a one-year $572,000 net gain and a spectacular $160,000 advertising budget — though chump change when compared to Boston’s Brooke Charter’s almost half-million dollar ad budget.

Sure, charter schools arguably need a rainy day fund for emergencies. But the limit on the reserve fund is so high — up to 20 percent of their operating budget and capital costs, plus 25 percent of the prior year’s tuition payments — that no charter has ever returned a surplus to taxpayers.

By comparison, district schools return 100 percent of any unspent funds to their municipality; regional schools may retain only 5 percent.

One recent Saturday, I spent 8 hours and 22 minutes at Leverett’s annual Town Meeting. Facing another tight town budget, residents debated whether we could afford $33,000 to avoid more cuts to the elementary school beyond the thousands already trimmed. It’s an annual exercise in belt-tightening, especially for the school, hit hard by unfunded mandates, health insurance costs, and payments to charter schools.

Next year, Leverett will send $110,000 to one charter school for the education of six students. The amount is equivalent to the ad budget for the exclusive language-immersion school they leave town for, the one repeatedly cited for greatly under-enrolling minority and high-needs students.

While numbers vary by town, proportions are similar across the state. The departure of three to five students for charters — a fraction of a class — removes a full teacher’s salary from the local school, while fixed overhead costs remain.

South Hadley schools are facing a $1 million budget gap this fiscal year. At the same time, charter tuition obligations are ballooning to $1.5 million, up $282,000 (and only eight charter students) from fiscal 2019.

In contrast to community-based schools which regularly find themselves cutting staff and begging for spare change, charters operate with a set of rules that allow frivolous expenditures and large accumulations of spare cash. Massachusetts residents need to decide if starving one set of schools in order to benefit another is an acceptable way to educate our children.

If passed, the Promise Act will bring critical funding to neighborhood schools, particularly in the poorest districts, but further legislation is needed to adequately address the charter drain.

Amherst-Pelham, with 41 percent high-need students, periodically must cut programs and staff while sending $1.5 million annually to charters. It will receive only an additional $121,000 under the terms of the Promise Act — surely not enough to avoid future cuts.

Only funding charters via a separate line item in the state budget will allow local schools to start to stabilize their finances. Let the burden of supporting an auxiliary school system fall on the state instead of individual towns. And a bit of charter spending oversight wouldn’t hurt, either.

Nancy Grossman of Leverett is a former municipal treasurer-collector and former member of the Leverett Finance Committee. A longer version of this op-ed originally appeared in CommonWealth magazine.

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