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State Legislature throws charter schools a lifeline

Public charter schools that are intentionally or accidentally small get new funding

Posted: Thursday, May 14, 2009

A bill passed by the Legislature and that is awaiting the governor's signature should help Alaska's small charter schools living on the financial edge.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The Juneau Community Charter School, along with a handful of other small charter schools, have been coping with a state funding system that some say forces growth. For most schools, more students means more money.

Public charter schools are not funded that way, however, and if enrollment drops below 150 students their per student funding also drops precipitously.

And for schools like the Juneau Community Charter School, which wanted to remain small, it was funded less per student than if it had been a traditional school.

In the past, legislators such as former State Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, managed to pass special appropriations to fill the gap. Sometimes.

"For the past four years we've asked for a yearly appropriation," said Brenda Taylor of the Juneau Community Charter School. "We got them for three years, ... but we didn't get it last year."

That left the school, which is managed differently than Juneau's other schools, with a $30,000 deficit this year, said Taylor, president of the school's Academic Policy Committee that manages the 68-student school.

"We had a savings account from fundraising, that's what we had to use to survive this year," she said.

Senate Bill 57, passed by the legislature this year but which still needs to be signed by Gov. Sarah Palin, would solve the small school funding problem, say charter school advocates.

"It's permanent, it's in statute, and it would negate the need to knock on doors every year to get funding," Taylor said.

Another school to get caught in the charter school funding trap in recent years was Effie Kokrine Charter School in Fairbanks. It intended to be above 150 students, but twice fell just a few students short, costing it hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding.

That was when Sen. Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, got involved.

"Until Effie Kokrine had the difficulty, I didn't realize how big a cliff it was our schools stepped over when they went below the 150 (student) mark," he said. "Whether it was one student or ten, you lost a good deal of your money."

This session, charter school allies including Thomas and members of the Juneau legislative delegation sought to solve the problem permanently with a bill to change the way small charter schools are funded.

Thomas introduced Senate Bill 57, with former Juneau Sen. Kim Elton as its first co-sponsor. Elton also served as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, the bill's first stop in the state Senate. In the House, Reps. Beth Kerttula and Cathy Muñoz were the first two co-sponsors.

"Public charter schools provide choice and innovation," Muñoz said. "A lot of really innovative education happens at charter schools."

Muñoz was one of the founders of the Juneau Community Charter School, which incorporates music, foreign language instruction and the arts into the curriculum.

Elsewhere in Alaska charter schools offer Yup'ik immersion or other specialties chosen by parents.

Senate Bill 57 changes funding rules that crippled schools such as Effie Kokrine, as well as those such as Juneau which choose to be small for academic reasons.

Now, charter schools will be treated as if they were regular, mid-size neighborhood schools. They will still have to operate more efficiently than other schools, but Taylor said that's something charter schools are used to.

The bill also includes a "hold harmless" provision for schools that are unexpectedly below the 150-student funding threshhold. The provision allows funding to remain stable even if a school's enrollment drops below 150 students during a single school year. Thomas said missing that quota by even a single student can be crippling to a charter school.

"You are trying to build back enrollment, but you are having to lay off teachers and make other changes that make that more difficult," he said.

Passage of the new formula will free up time that has in recent years been spent lobbying legislators for money, Taylor said.

"We're happy to have the time in order to be able to concentrate on our programs," she said.

Charter school advocates, including Muñoz, say there has been no opposition to the bill and they expect Palin to sign it.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or by e-mail at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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