April 8, 2013

SAD 54 chief says Cornville, Fairfield charter schools hurting budget

Superintendent Brent Colbry says about half of proposed $1.48 million budget hike is being paid to Cornville Regional Charter School, Maine Academy of Natural Sciences

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN — The superintendent of Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 is blaming two Maine charter schools for a dramatic drop in revenue that could lead to deep budget cuts or higher taxes in the coming year.

click image to enlarge

Brent Colbry speaks in front of the new wood pellet boiler system inside the Skowhegan Area High School on Jan. 103. Colbry, superintendent of School Administrative District 54, said about half of a proposed $1.48 million district budget increase will be paid as tuition to two charter schools, Cornville Regional Charter School and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield.

Staff file photo by David Leaming


• Canaan

• Cornville

• Mercer

• Norridgewock

• Skowhegan

• Smithfield

Superintendent Brent Colbry said the coming year's proposed budget is $1.48 million more than the current one, and $625,000 of the increase is going directly to the Cornville Regional Charter School and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield.

"That's checks we have to write to them," Colbry said of the $625,000. "We literally have to write them four checks — one each quarter."

Colbry said that figure is based on projections that 60 students from the district will attend the Cornville school in kindergarten through grade seven in the 2013-14 school year and 10 students in grades nine to 12 will go to the academy on the campus of Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield. The calculations are made using roughly $8,786 for each elementary-age student and $7,674 for each high school-age student.

Colbry said according to Maine law, the charter school students are still counted "on the books" as School Administrative District 54 students for state funding and additional local taxes to be raised.

"Those kids go to the charter schools and we actually have to pay tuition to that school," Colbry said. "That money goes to the charter school, but our expenses here haven't dropped. Nothing changes here. It's the same number of teachers, the same busing, the same everything. We have to make that money up, either in taxes or in cuts."

Colbry said the proposed SAD 54 budget for the coming year is $33.8 million. He said if reductions are not made, local taxes for schools will increase 11 to 12 percent.

Colbry said the school board's goal is to make spending cuts that will bring that increase down to 3 to 4 percent more than the current year's budget.

"People are going to feel that, either in the form of taxes or reduced programs," Colbry said.

Colbry said other reasons for the projected 4.58 percent budget increase include a possible shift of Maine state retirement payment obligations to local districts, an increase in tuition for special education and health insurance.

He said potential targets for budget cuts to make up the difference include 16 full-time and part-time positions, including some teachers, and cuts to support services, summer school, textbooks and the school lunch program.

Colbry said his district and others that are losing students to charter schools are hoping the Legislature will act on three proposed pieces of legislation aimed at shifting funding for charter schools from state allocations for each district and from local taxes. Colbry and others from SAD 54 spoke during a hearing on charter school legislation last week.

One of the bills, sponsored by Rep. Karen Kusiak, D-Fairfield, would end all transfers of funding from school districts and make the state create a separate funding source for charter schools, according to a report from the legislative hearing last week.

Justin Belanger, one of the founders of the Cornville charter school, said during the hearing last week that charter schools are not allowed to charge tuition for students, the Portland Press Herald reported. So in order to maintain school choice, funding has to come from the state and district taxes, he said.

"It's really unfortunate that the funding mechanism funnels off money for the district schools to our schools, but that's just how it works," Belanger said Friday. "None of the charter schools that are starting intend to hurt district schools, but the way the funding is set up, money follows the child and they lose that money. It's up to the state to decide what to do. It's the state's duty to come up with a fair funding mechanism."

Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the Maine Charter School Commission, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who said last week that the three charter school bills were a direct attack on charter schools, did not respond to requests for comment Friday through department spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

Colbry said the school board is examining the budget for the coming year and has put off adoption of a final draft until May 9 to give the Legislature time to act on the three proposed pieces of legislation. A public hearing on the budget is set for May 16, with the district budget meeting scheduled for May 28.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367


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