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TENNESSEE: Metro school board, council begin talks on projected $23M budget shortfall

New-hampshire-charter-schools-budgetMetro school officials continued pointing to the rising cost of operating charter schools Thursday, but this time they had Metro Council members to their side as the two parties began a dialogue on a projected $23 million shortfall.

The message from Metro Nashville Public Schools didn’t change: the expansion and increase of charter schools — 22 will be operating in Nashville next year — is expected to place a $62.2 million burden on the 2014-15 budget, up from $4.6 million just five years ago.

Sitting together at a roundtable Thursday, members of the board’s budget and finance committee relayed to their council counterparts what they’ve been discussing amongst themselves for weeks. Projected revenue is well below a preliminary $784.4 million budget, they say, and publicly financed charters are a big reason.

“Speaker [Beth] Harwell and Mayor [Karl] Dean aren’t going to like this slide,” said the board’s Will Pinkston, delivering a swipe at Nashville’s two biggest charter school proponents during a PowerPoint presentation that showed the charter-cost spike.

Amid heightened tension between district and charter leaders, Thursday’s meeting marked the first occasion the board has met with the council’s top committee leaders to discuss what Director of Schools Jesse Register has called “tough” budget decisions coming next spring. Because of those difficult choices, the board has started talks earlier than it ever has.

The council’s budget and finance committee chairman Ronnie Steine said he felt unusual “being in the middle of a political debate for the first time.”

“Usually, I’m on one side or the other on something.”

The mayor and council do not begin formal budget hearings until this spring, though watching from the sidelines Thursday was Dean’s top aide, Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling.

Also in attendance were representatives of the Tennessee Charter School Center, the state’s main charter lobbying and advocacy organization, whose members have felt unfairly targeted. They’re looking for an entirely different conversation.

“The discussion needs to revolve around: Where is the highest return on investment and where are we getting the best academic gains?” said Greg Thompson, the charter school center’s CEO. “That’s the No. 1 priority of a school system.

“Charters are part of educating kids. Why not single out other high schools and district schools as costs?”

He applauded comments made by Elissa Kim, a pro-charter school board member who said the district should be “agnostic” on the school model. Student achievement should be the main focus, she said.

Either way, school officials say charters are having a clear financial impact that is handcuffing a district that is expected to swell to 84,543 students next year.

Under the state’s charter school funding formula, the entire $9,100 per-pupil dollar amount in Nashville follows students to their new school. School officials say this doesn’t offset the “fixed costs” of maintaining the schools they exit.

Though it hasn’t formally made any proposal, Register’s administration has raised potential cuts to cope with a budget shortfall: eliminating enhanced-option schools; offering buyouts to retirees; raising class sizes in middle and high schools; and, garnering most of the attention, closing down under-capacity schools.

Board members have noted that the 12 Metro schools that are operating below 70 percent of capacity are concentrated in North and East Nashville — home to most of the city’s charters, which have attracted students, helping dwindle enrollments.

“You can see how the trends are going,” the board’s chair Cheryl Mayes said.

Source: The Tennessean – by Joey Garrison

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This entry was posted on October 18, 2013 by in Charter Schools, State funding, Tennessee and tagged .

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