Pelham school asks state for financial break after charter school’s reporting error

  • The Pelham School Committee met on Wednesday to discuss a sudden budget shortfall. GAZETTE STAFF/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Published: 7/19/2017 5:51:55 PM

AMHERST — The Pelham School Committee approved a letter Wednesday calling on the state to provide financial relief after school officials received late notice that the school district owes a local charter school $67,000 — a figure that amounts to 4 percent of the district’s budget.

The surprise shortfall came after the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School erroneously listed two of its students as living outside the Pelham district last fall, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis.

The correction of that mistake, together with two more of the charter’s students who are now listed as part-time Pelham residents, resulted in Pelham officials being alerted eight days before the start of the fiscal year that they must unexpectedly cover the price tag for those students’ tuition.

In the letter to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education written by School Committee chairwoman Cara Castenson, the Pelham School Committee is asking the state to consider 2018 as the students’ first year enrolled at the charter school in order to provide the district time to deal with what the letter calls “a virtually insurmountable financial hurdle for our school and our town.” 

Under Massachusetts’ school funding formula, 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.

State lawmakers have not appropriated the money to fully reimburse districts since 2012, however. Statewide, charter reimbursements 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.

Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional school districts have been underpaid more than $900,000 in the past four years, according to interim Superintendent Michael Morris.

Because the school district doesn’t take part in the process of verifying charter school students’ addresses, the School Committee wrote the education board that the district shouldn’t suffer from an error that they did not commit.

“Considering the flexibility the state Legislature has adopted toward fully funding charter school reimbursements in recent years, we believe that the state, in this instance, could adopt a similarly flexible policy to prevent a result that is unjust and punitive to a highly-performing public elementary school,” the School Committee’s letter reads.

Reis, the education department spokeswoman, previously told the Gazette that the department can not provide reimbursement beyond what the law stipulates. Morris said he hopes the education board will intervene on Pelham’s behalf.

Reporting error

Normally, Pelham would have received notice of the two students attending the Chinese Immersion Charter School after the charter submitted residency information to the state in October. That October data, however, contained a mistake that was fixed in a subsequent February filing, according to Reis. Pelham school officials were notified of the change on June 22.

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

At Wednesday’s School Committee meeting, there was little discussion about how the district might deal with the unanticipated expenses. The district has already signed contracts, which Morris said account for 80 percent of the district’s costs. Much of the other 20 percent, he added, are fixed costs, and in a school with only one teacher per grade it’s difficult to find places to make cuts.

“It’s plainly obvious that the math doesn’t work,” he said.

Morris suggested the School Committee wait to see how their advocacy plays out at the state level before making those decisions when the body reconvenes in the fall. School Committee members expressed interest in attending the education board’s next meeting in late September.

In the meantime, the Pelham Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization has written a letter to Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, asking him to look into the matter and “to help fill this funding gap which is a major hit to this exceptional school.”

Something Morris hopes the education department can answer in the coming days is how to check to make sure addresses coming from charter schools are accurate while also observing privacy constraints.

That is an important question because, as Morris wrote in an email to a senior associate commissioner at the department, “after checking a few of the names, we have noticed some errors in our other districts as well.”

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


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