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Friday, September 21, 2012

Citing lack of funding, state education officials put hold on new charter schools

Karin Cevasco is frustrated.

She and a group of parents and professionals in Nashua have put in more than 2,000 hours preparing an application for the state Department of Education to open the Gate City Charter School for the Arts. ...

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Karin Cevasco is frustrated.

She and a group of parents and professionals in Nashua have put in more than 2,000 hours preparing an application for the state Department of Education to open the Gate City Charter School for the Arts.

After three months of waiting for a meeting with Education Commissioner Virginia Barry, however, the group learned that it would have no such meeting any time soon, after the state Board of Education voted Wednesday to place an indefinite moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools.

“It’s an incredible disappointment,” said Cevasco, whose school had hoped to open its doors in fall 2013.

The decision came at a monthly meeting of the board Wednesday in Whitefield, where Deputy Commissioner of Education Paul Leather presented the board with information about funding issues surrounding charters.

The decision has sent charter school supporters into a tailspin but is one that state education officials say is needed to remain fiscally responsible.

“The money just isn’t there,” said Board of Education Chairman Tom Raffio.

The state funds charter schools through state tuition aid and fiscal disparity aid, giving charter schools a total of about $5,450 per student each year.

In addition to Cevasco’s Gate City Charter School for the Arts, there are 14 other schools currently under some stage of development in the Granite State, he said.

In the past two years alone, the board authorized eight new charter schools in the state, leading to a total of 18 approved charters.

Those schools were approved when state funding was available, Raffio said, but now the board is worried about the state’s ability to sustain the schools if more charters are authorized.

Schools approved in the past two years have increased the state’s education adequacy payments by more than $5 million, Raffio said, and there is no further appropriation for additional schools.

“The problem now is that while we’re certainly supportive of the concept of the charter schools, we need to make sure that parents and students are protected, and to make sure that schools are sustainable,” he said. “Right now, the budgets included in the state’s education adequacy money can’t be counted on to sustain them.”

Charter school startups can still apply as locally approved schools, which are approved and funded by local school districts. However, those schools do still receive some state funding and require additional approval by the state board.

Charter school supporters are speaking out against the board’s decision.

Matt Southerton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, said it is not the Department of Education’s job, or the Board of Education’s job, to decide to place a moratorium on new charter schools.

Charter school funding is a separate line item in the state budget, Southerton said, and is calculated by totaling current charter school enrollment and projected increases for startups.

“The state board should authorize or deny any applicant based on the merits of their application,” he said in an email. “It is the elected legislature’s responsibility to fund or not to fund the budget.”

Raffio, however, said it is the state Board of Education’s job to be fiscally responsible and not approve more charter schools than the state is able to support.

While the board could approve more charter schools and hope the state is able to support them, he said, that could lead to bigger problems for the schools if the money doesn’t come.

“What could happen is that these schools could plow ahead, invest time and money, and then the state might not come through with the money,” he said. “We can’t control the legislature. We thought it would be better to put the moratorium in place, and then if (individuals) can convince the legislature to provide additional funding, we could go back to the applicants and approve them.”

Despite these intentions, however, Southerton said many charter school organizers are shocked and angered by the board’s decision.

While the board began discussing the future of charter schools in the state at a retreat in July, there was no warning to startups until after the vote was completed, he said.

Cevasco said she wishes she and other organizers of the Gate City Charter School for the Arts were given the “hard truth” earlier.

Southerton is also worried what a moratorium could do to a $11.6 million federal grant the state received in 2010 to provide startup money to charter schools.

“The grant was awarded based in large part on the fact that the Legislature removed the (previous) moratorium,” he wrote in an email. “I’m concerned that the U.S. DOE might conclude that New Hampshire violated their promises in the grant and choose to take back the startup money.”

While the state has already used a large portion of that grant funding, he said, if it was revoked it could result in a loss of about $5 million.

Raffio said he understands the concerns shared by charter school supporters and said the board’s decision was not an easy one to make.

“I feel bad about it,” he said. “We realize that charter schools have a niche … children do better in the right environment, we definitely feel they have a role in the education system. We’ve tried to be extremely supportive of that.”

He said if the Legislature were to increase funding for charter schools, the board would certainly be open to going back to its applicants and begin approving schools again.

“Most people realize the importance of education, and there could possibly be some energy behind raising some more money,” he said.

Cevasco said she and other charter school organizers hope to convince the state board to reverse its decision and talk with legislators to ensure that charter schools can continue to open in the state.

And she said she won’t give up on bringing the Gate City Charter School for the Arts to Nashua.

“We’ve put in a lot of time and effort, and we truly believe that this is a very valuable opportunity for the students in the Nashua area,” she said. “We will stick with it.”

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua Also follow Curtis on Twitter (Telegraph_DC).