Selected readings on US charter schools
State says error led to overpayments
About 200 charter schools are seeking an injunction that would prevent the Arizona Department of Education from recouping more than $5 million in classroom-site funds that state officials say it overpaid the schools.
The Arizona Charter Schools Association and about 200 of its member charter schools filed a lawsuit on Friday against the Education Department to stop it from collecting the money.
The suit claims the department wants charter schools to return $5.89 million in Proposition 301 money after the state changed its interpretation of teacher-performance pay.
Eileen Sigmund, president of the association, said the department’s actions are unconstitutional and would adversely affect schools that have already budgeted their Prop. 301 funds for this school year.
“We’re filing an injunction … to ask a judge and neutral third party to say, ‘Hey, is this allowed? We were playing by all the rules you gave us, and all of a sudden you’ve changed the rules without telling us, and you’re clawing back the money,’ ” Sigmund said.
Education Department officials could not comment in detail on Friday, saying they had not yet reviewed the complaint, said Stacey Morley, the department’s director of policy development and government affairs.
“We constantly adjust school-district payments and charter-school payments based on current information and data. I don’t remember ever being sued because of it,” Morley said. “The fact is that it’s a finite pot of money that gets distributed to all schools.”
A hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court has been set for Friday, when the charter schools plan to request an injunction hearing as soon as possible, said Kory Langhofer, the attorney representing the charters.
“We’ve got a good case. Our evidence is ready to go,” he said. “The schools need the money, and we don’t want to delay.”
In 2000, Arizona voters approved Prop. 301, which was intended to provide additional funding for teachers based on increased student performance. The 0.6-cent-per-dollar sales tax is earmarked to pay teachers and provide instructional support in the classroom. The available money changes each year depending on sales-tax revenue.
In January, Education Department officials said they discovered that an error in calculating classroom-site funding had shortchanged hundreds of Arizona public and charter schools while causing others to be overpaid since 2006.
In March, the department reimbursed about $38 million to the underfunded districts and set up payment plans to recoup about $6 million the state overpaid to charters and school districts.
The Education Department plans to begin collecting the money, starting this week, over a five-year period.
“We’re trying to balance the fact that we have to take this money back because we feel it wasn’t distributed properly … (with the understanding) that it has an impact on schools, so we spread it out over five years,” Morley said.
“I’m happy to have a court tell me if this isn’t correct. We really just want to try to be fair and reasonable, and we have a responsibility to all the schools in Arizona and the taxpayers to make sure that money gets allocated correctly.”
Sigmund said attempts to negotiate with Education Department officials since February have been fruitless.
She said the charter association filed its lawsuit as a last resort.
Source: azcentral.com – by Amy Wang, The Republic