Will budget cuts scuttle Juneau's charter school?

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2004


Correction to story

Juneau's charter school likely will close at the end of the school year if the school district reduces its budget as proposed, parents say.

The seven-year-old downtown school enrolls nearly 60 students in an arts-based curriculum, with strong parental involvement.

Charter schools are public schools that set their own curriculum, usually rent their own space and often are governed by a committee of parents.

The Juneau School Board is considering cutting $18,600 from the district's usual allocation of roughly $260,000, as part of a package of savings intended to close a $2.4 million gap in the district's budget for next school year. The $260,000 figure is the least the district must give the school, by state law.

The proposed charter school's cut may not appear drastic, but many expenses such as salaries and benefits are fixed or growing. Also, the roughly $25,000 a year it raises goes toward arts, physical education and Spanish specialists whose courses help shape the school's character.

The Juneau Community Charter School's expenses this school year are about $300,000, said Ernie Mueller, a member of the school's Academic Policy Committee.

The school will try to make up the difference through its usual annual fund raising and by spending the last of a state grant, he said. But parents don't think they can raise enough money for next school year to cover the proposed reduction in district funds.

All of the district's schools would be profoundly affected by the proposed cuts, which include reducing the number of teachers by 26.

The district's preliminary $39.4 million operating budget for next school year wouldn't lay off any of the charter school's three teachers or its administrative assistant. But even the loss of $18,600 would cause the school to close, parents on the school's governing committee told the Juneau School Board last week.

"We certainly don't want to have the result of our budget decreases that we close the charter school," Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan said in an interview. "But we're cutting the budget in all areas, so our initial response was to look at what the state requirement was to fund them, and revert to that."

Parents on the governing Academic Policy Committee are looking for budgetary relief in a number of ways, Mueller said.

Parents will shop around for a less expensive school site, including any spare space in the district's schools. They also may ask the city to pay for their $44,000 building lease, he said. The school will try to attract a few more students, who bring more state funding with them.

It's hard for small charter schools to keep up with rising costs. Fireweed Academy in Homer is one of the smallest charter schools in Alaska. The 30-student, two-classroom school has kept up with personnel costs by adding a few students a year, said lead teacher Kiki Abrahamson. It pays a fee to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to use two portable classrooms.

But the point will come when Fireweed loses the small class sizes that attract parents, yet not have enough students to fund three classrooms. Eventually, the school would need more space as well, Abrahamson said.

Juneau charter school parents also will make the case that the district has misinterpreted the state education-funding law and shortchanged the school.

The state's funding method is complicated. The state doesn't fund schools individually, but it does calculate a district's total funding by considering the size of each school.

The state gives districts more money per student in small schools than in large schools, to account for differences in the economies of scale.

But charter schools with fewer than 150 students aren't counted as separate schools in determining funding. Instead, those small charter schools are lumped in with the largest school in their district. That results in less state money per charter school student than a district usually would receive for its small schools.

In Juneau, the charter school, which has 57 students, is added to Juneau-Douglas High School and the alternative high school, which combined have 1,700 students, in accounting for its economies of scale.

The Legislature didn't want to fund a lot of small charter schools, said Eddy Jeans, school finance and facilities manager for the state Department of Education.

"Part of the reason it was done was the Legislature didn't want a whole bunch of small charter schools popping up around the state and sucking up a bunch of money through the formula," Jeans said.

Most of the state's 19 charter schools have about 200 students, comparable in size to small regular elementary schools.

Mueller, of the parent committee, said the small charter school "is caught in the middle because we don't have control of a lot of our expenses," such as salaries. The unions and district negotiate contracts.

For the Juneau charter school, the law means that each of its students is counted as .84 of a student in one piece of the formula. For example, 57 actual students were counted as about 48 students when considering economies of scale. In contrast, 266 real students at Gastineau Elementary were counted as 342 students.

For a technical reason, charter school parents believe the district should count its students at a .93 rate, but Jeans said the district is interpreting the formula correctly.

Charter school parents also believe the school should share in some of the roughly $7 million annually allocated by the Juneau Assembly that is beyond the state's required minimum local contribution to schools.

The state's required minimum funding for the charter school is based on state funding plus the minimum local contribution. But the school's parents are taxpayers and should share in the extra local funds, Mueller pointed out.

The Juneau charter school spends about $5,300 per child, including money it has raised from the community, compared to the Juneau School District's average of $7,471, Mueller said.

The charter school trims costs by using parents to help clean the school, work as aides in the classroom and drive kids to school, he added.

Superintendent Cowan agreed the state formula isn't equitable for the Juneau charter school and said all of the proposed budget cuts are open for discussion.

• Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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