perks of being a charter school

Cuomo’s budget proposal includes perks for New York City charter schools, including lifting the city’s cap

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Thousands of parents and students attended a charter school rally hosted by Families for Excellent Schools in September 2016

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his executive budget proposal last week, New York’s charter school advocates were quick to offer support.

The pro-charter group StudentsFirstNY said the plan reaffirms Cuomo’s belief in the “critical role” of charter schools. New York City’s Charter Center said it sets the stage for “continued growth.”

Why are they excited? The budget proposal includes a few significant perks for charter schools — particularly those in New York City, where more schools would be allowed to open in the coming years.

Here is a breakdown of the changes:

New York City’s charter-school cap eliminated

State law currently allows for just 30 more charter schools to open in New York City — but that number may soon skyrocket.

New York state currently has a statewide charter school cap and a cap specific to New York City. Under Cuomo’s proposal, New York City’s charter cap would be eliminated, leaving just one overall cap on charter schools across the state.

That’s significant because New York City only had those 30 charter slots remaining by November 2016, according to the Charter Center, though there were 126 charters left to issue throughout the state.

The legislature last adjusted the cap in 2015, when it gave the city another 50 slots.

More help paying for private space

As New York City’s charter schools expanded rapidly under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, many were given space in the city’s public school buildings. Some, though, were told they would have to find and pay for space themselves.

Charter advocates won a big victory in 2014 when the state passed a law requiring New York City to help charter schools pay for private space. Under Cuomo’s new proposal, those schools would get a little more help.

Under the 2014 law, new and expanding charter schools that don’t get public space are entitled to either 20 percent of their per-pupil tuition rate or their total rent, whichever is less. Cuomo’s proposal would increase that to 30 percent of per-pupil tuition rate or the school’s “total facility rental cost.”

The problem for charter schools is that moving into a private space often costs more than the the rent or the 20 percent figure, said David Umansky, the CEO of Civic Builders, an organization that helps charter schools find and build spaces. When that happens, schools face tough budgetary choices, he said.

“It’s not about building the Taj Mahal. It’s about just finding a space to teach kids,” Umansky said. “It’s a real stress on schools.”

Under the law, the city is on the hook for up to $40 million in rent. Once it hits that figure — which the Charter Center estimates will happen sometime this year — the costs will be split with the state.

More public space all at once

Another change requires charter schools to be given enough room for a chunk of grades in the space they are offered. For instance, the city could not give a new charter school one year of co-located space for just a first grade when the charter school has approved plans to expand up to fourth grade.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.