Education

State to examine charter school funding

Administration from local public and charter schools hope an audit of the state Department of Education is conducted appropriately.

But they have different opinions on how things are handled.

Some public schools think things are done unfairly at the state level in terms of education funding.

On the other hand, charter school representatives said they need all the help they can get when some public schools are withholding or delaying payments to their schools.

Public schools pay a per pupil rate for regular and special education students from within their district who attend charter schools.

Charter schools commonwealth-wide reached out to the state for funding, despite public schools not yet getting their share due to the budget impasse.

“Transparency and accountability are very important when it comes to spending taxpayer money,” Levent Kaya said. “Therefore, the announced audits are a positive step to ensure both transparency and accountability for all parties involved, charter schools, school districts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.”

The Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School CEO said one Centre County school district is withholding payments to the school, while another is delaying payments.

Audit

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in a statement Thursday that his office would look into the Department of Education’s handling of charter school tuition disbursement appeals.

“The ongoing state budget impasse brought to light potential failures in the process the Department of Education uses to handle school districts’ appeals of payments to charter schools,” DePasquale said in a prepared statement. “With more than $1.1 billion of state education funding going toward charter school tuition payments, it is important to make sure all education funding is handled accurately and appropriately.”

He said the education funding system “often pits school districts and charter schools against each other.”

The budget stalemate is exacerbating already tense relationships between charters and districts in every region of the state. When there are disagreements between public school districts and charter schools over tuition payments, the appeals process should be judicious, fair, timely, and understandable.

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale

“The budget stalemate is exacerbating already tense relationships between charters and districts in every region of the state,” DePasquale said. “When there are disagreements between public school districts and charter schools over tuition payments, the appeals process should be judicious, fair, timely, and understandable.”

According to a Senate report released in October, some charter schools sought gaming tax relief funds since their “normal funding stream” was unavailable.

About $45 million was expected to be distributed but was canceled after a group of Democratic senators asked the treasurer to delay making payments to charter schools until the budget impasse is resolved and all schools have funding in place, Senate Democratic Appropriations Chairman Vincent Hughes said.

That decision was then appealed.

“As the state budget impasse drags on, the convoluted effort to use property tax relief funds to make payments to charter schools is confusing for school districts and charter schools alike,” DePasquale said. “We need more legal clarity and guidance for both PDE and our schools.”

Administration input

Though some Centre County charter school administrators said they haven’t been in talks with the state regarding funding, they might start by the end of the year if the state budget isn’t passed.

The state is 158 days without passing a budget as of Saturday.

Centre Learning Community Charter School administration said they had little comment on the issue since “we at CLC have had very little reimbursement from PDE for non-payment from school districts,” business manager and CEO Kosta Dussias said in an email.

But added that he looked “forward to the result of the audit.”

State College Area School District business manager Randy Brown said he supports the audit.

“Since a charter school receives funds from the state level or directly from public school districts, I believe an oversight is appropriate when it comes to their finances and operations,” he said. “District tuition dollars to a charter school are public money, from local, state or federal sources. School districts are highly regulated organizations; charter schools should be treated in a similar fashion.”

Financial figures

According to the Department of Education, more than 130,000 students are enrolled in more than 170 brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools.

Brown said the district is paying 82 percent of the charter school bills.

“The budget impasse has not resulted in a change in relationship with the local charter schools, at least as far as I am aware,” Brown said.

$12,234 SCASD payment for a regular education student

SCASD pays $12,234 for a regular education student, and $25,331 for special education student’s charter school tuition. There are 426 district students enrolled in charter schools as compared to the about 6,900 enrolled in the school district, Brown said.

Tuition costs paid to charter schools last year totaled more than $5 million, Brown said.

There are similar figures at Bellefonte Area School District.

District director of fiscal affairs Ken Bean said the district annually pays about $12,400 per regular education student and $25,500 per special education student.

There are 123 Bellefonte Area students enrolled in charter schools.

The audit will cover Jan. 1, 2011, through the end of fieldwork, and will focus on evaluating the adequacy of PDE’s processes and procedures for addressing charter school payment appeals in accordance with state law, a report from the auditor general’s office said.

“Depending on what we find in this audit, we may have some additional recommendations to ensure that every dollar of education funding is helping students learn,” DePasquale said.

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo

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