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Quick and Dirty

Doing the Math

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 6/15/2005

“Implementation is not as simple as waking up one September morning and opening the doors to shiny new schools.” So said then-Baltimore City School Board member David Stone at a City Council hearing held almost a year ago to discuss the city school system’s now-overturned policy to limit the number of charter schools allowed to open in fall 2005.

Since Stone uttered those words, he’s become the director of Charter and New School Initiatives for the Baltimore City Public School System, and the state has overturned the district’s policy limiting charter-school openings. Now city schools administrators and the founders of the more than a dozen soon-to-open charter schools are proving Stone’s words true: Working out the kinks in these new charter schools, which will operate independently of the city school board, has not been simple.

The latest issue the city school district and the charter schools are struggling with is funding. In March the city school board created a funding model for charter schools that would give each school $5,011 in funds and $2,943 in services per student. Many charter-school operators balked at the figures, which they say were substantially lower than they expected and charged them for services they had no intention of using. Several charter schools went to the state to appeal, asking it to clarify the vague funding guidelines in the state’s charter-school law.

On May 6 the Maryland State Board of Education handed down its decision on the appeal. The city school board is now required to give $10,956 per student to charter schools based on a formula that simply divides education dollars by the number of students. The decision created a panic. City school officials argue that the formula is flawed because it includes money for administration and special-education programs, which cost more than traditional education programs.

If the state’s funding model goes forward, Stone says, “we’d have to find an additional $13 million. And if we funded all our schools at the level that the state appeared to be saying we should, it would cost the district an additional $120 million.” That funding formula would also affect the city school system’s ability to pay down its $58 million deficit.

“Right now we have budgeted every dollar in the system,” Stone says. “So in order for us to give more money to the charter schools, it has to come from somewhere.”

Some worry that will mean taking money and programs away from traditional public schools to help fund the charters.

The State Board of Education defended its decision at a hearing on May 24, making only minor concessions to the city school system. School districts will now be able to subtract money for students with special needs as well as 2 percent of the per-pupil funding to cover administrative costs. North Avenue has appealed the decision to the Baltimore City Circuit Court.

In the meantime, charter schools are still trying to work out the contracts they need to open this fall—a difficult task without funding nailed down.

“I’m offering teaching positions to people without a signed contract,” says Bobbi Macdonald, founder of Northeast Baltimore’s City Neighbors Charter School. “So I’m saying, ‘Would you like to come work at City Neighbors? But I can’t officially offer you this job yet.’”

Despite the tension, Stone is optimistic.

“The relationship that we have with these schools has really been tested by this, and yet it remains where we have a good working relationship with them,” he says. “They’re good folks, they really are. They really just want to open some nice schools.”

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