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ARIZONA: New middle schools could be charters in Higley

Higley board mulls idea to bring in more state funds

charter-school-fundingPlans are under way to possibly designate two new Higley Unified middle schools “charter schools.”

The district’s governing board last week voted to file paperwork with the state and will make a decision in July on whether to charter the Sossaman and Cooley middle schools, which are under construction and slated to open Aug. 5 for the new school year.

Chartering the middle schools would bring in more money to the district but would not change curriculum, teachers, transportation, athletics or any other programs, administration officials told the board last week.

“I can see where just using the word ‘charter’ can get people concerned,” said Higley Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty. “This is really a funding issue. Everything else is the same.”

The school names would remain the same and “charter” would not be added to them, the administration told the board.

The district could gain an additional $1.96 million in 2015 by chartering the schools, Hegarty said. The additional funds would come from an extra $1,547 per student that charter schools receive from the state to pay the cost of leasing a building, Hegarty said. School enrollment for each middle school is expected to be more than 900 students.

Because the state hasn’t funded new school construction in five years, the district did not receive state aid to build the new middle schools and has been seeking alternate means of bringing in more money.

“If the state had funded these schools, this wouldn’t be an agenda item right now,” Hegarty told the school board.

Higley decided to build the two schools to deal with expected enrollment increases from a boom in residential construction within district boundaries.

The two middle schools, a first for the district, would open up space at the district’s eight K-8 schools, which are close to capacity. The middle schools would serve seventh- and eighth-graders, and the elementary schools would become kindergarten to sixth-grade schools.

Voters last November approved a district request to enter into longer-than-normal leases of land for the two middle schools.

Under state statute, public school districts can open and operate charter schools.

The board’s decision to possibly charter the middle schools hinges on whether the district can keep the $2 million in growth funding it receives from the state for the approximately 350 to 500 new students it sees each year.

Current interpretation of state statute is that districts forfeit state growth money during the first year of opening a charter.

The administration has asked the Arizona attorney general for an opinion on whether the district can keep the money, Hegarty said. Higley officials are expecting to get that opinion in July.

“If (the attorney general’s opinion) is favorable, a lot more districts are going to jump on this,” Higley Public Schools Superintendent Denise Birdwell told the board.

Hegarty and Birdwell told the board it would not be financially feasible to approve the charter if the district can’t keep its first year of growth funding.

Because the school has a balanced budget and funds to pay for the middle-school leases, the $1.96 million — 4 percent of the school’s budget — it could gain by chartering the schools would provide additional money for classroom supplies and offset state budget cuts.

If a district decides to shut down a charter school, state statute dictates that all the additional funding the district received from the state to charter the schools must be paid back.

Potentially, paying back the charter-school money was among the reasons board member Jake Hoffman indicated he would be opposed to chartering the schools.

“To me, this is a funding gimmick,” Hoffman said during the meeting, prompting a sometimes-heated discussion among board members and Birdwell.

Board President Denise Standage, who participated in the meeting via phone, countered, “This is done as a fiscally responsible measure for our taxpayers because it would bring more money to our students.”

Hoffman said he believed chartering the schools was “fiscally irresponsible in the long term” and the original intent of the statute was not to put more money in public schools’ coffers.

Board Vice President Kim Anderson said, “I think if the attorney general thinks it’s an abuse of the system, it won’t rule favorably.”

The district is working on an alternative for parents who don’t want to send their kids to a charter school, according to a statement Higley issued last week.

Source: The Republic (AZCentral.com) – by Karen Schmidt

View more articles on Arizona charter schools

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This entry was posted on June 11, 2013 by in Arizona, Charter Schools, State funding and tagged .

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