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Anchorage School District revamps special-education funding for charters

Tegan Hanlon

The Anchorage School District will extend special education services to its eight charter schools starting in the next budget year, after the Anchorage School Board unanimously passed its annual budget Monday night.

But those services come with a cost, one that the seven-member school board grappled with how to best instate at its meeting Monday evening. The proposed budget called for the charter schools to pay in full, using state funding, for those services starting in the 2014-15 budget year. Charter school officials said they hadn't expected the blow, with some already struggling just to pay for their buildings.

The funding for special education services comes from the state. Previously, charter schools had used some of that state funding on other needs, like school building maintenance or paying rent, as well as other education-based costs.

In a 6-1 vote Monday, the board passed a budget amendment, saying the charter schools could hand over 50 percent of this state funding to the district for fiscal year 2014-15 and 100 percent in the following budget years. Then, they district would reallocate it among all schools based on need.

"Let us ease the transition," said Eric Croft, board president.

The district will use $1.27 million from its fund balance to bankroll the other half.

Jeff Lentfer, a member of a parent-led committee at Rilke Schule German School, said it "definitely makes sense" for the charter school's special education money, about $611,000, to funnel into a districtwide pool. But he came to the board Monday with concerns about facilities.

"The 50 percent reduction would be huge, but it wouldn't be enough," he said.

The charter school's rapidly expanding student population has outgrown its space in South Anchorage's Wellspring Church, he said. It needs to expand and its lease will soon expire. Charter schools pay for facility costs from their general education funds.

"I think it was a pretty good effort to try to get something to help the charter schools," he said after the meeting. "I don't think it solves our specific issue, but I was pleased that they addressed it to some degree, to help us."

Board member Natasha von Imhof said the budget amendment would give charter schools a financial cushion and time to figure out how to handle facility costs.

"It was a friendly amendment," she said.

Anchorage neighborhood schools pay the direct operational and maintenance costs for the buildings they inhabit. Charter schools paid the district rent until the governor's omnibus education bill passed during this year's legislative session, which aligned charter school payments with those of neighborhood schools.

The Aquarian Charter School will save nearly $85,000 a year under the bill. But all of the other Anchorage charter schools exist outside of district buildings and do not benefit. Von Imhof hopes this will change, she said. Still, the education bill sends hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional funding into charters schools. The Rilke Schule German School will have about $900,000 more than last year, according to the district's budget.

That's because the bill mandated that the district distribute a portion of its state and local funding to charter schools outside of the base student allocation, a per-student payment, said Andy Ratliff, the acting executive director of the district's Office of Management and Budget.

The money that the district is now asking charter schools to pay comes from additions to the BSA. The state provides a bump in per-student funding to cover special education, as well as Native education, English language learners, the gifted program and career and technical students.

But that funding is based on a formula -- a percentage of schools' total student population -- not the actual number of students who fall into those programs.

Croft said that typically charter schools have fewer children in special education programs than at neighborhood schools. Still, charter schools kept the state funding intended for special education programs and used it for other school needs.

"It needs to be more equitable," Ratliff said.

At neighborhood schools, the district has been taking out this bump in funding and reinjecting it based on need, using local money to make up for funding shortfalls.

"So essentially now we're going to treat charter schools the same way," Croft said. "They're going to incur the cost of program capacity like other neighborhood schools already do."

Joey Eski, the vice chair of Aquarian's Academic Policy Committee, said she's still unsure how the funding change will unravel.

"We're just waiting. We really don't know at this point," she said. "We're really just excited to have a school board that's working with us."

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.

Correction: An earlier version of this article included a misspelling of Anchorage School Board President Eric Croft's name.

 


By TEGAN HANLON
thanlon@adn.com