School officials in central Maine are cutting the budgets they set aside to pay local students’ charter school tuition bills in anticipation of changes to the way schools are funded.
On Tuesday, the Maine Senate passed and sent to the governor a bill, L.D. 131, that has the state billed directly for students who attend charter schools in the state. Under current law, local school districts pay tuition for all students living within the district boundaries who attend the charter schools. The payment scheme has created huge expenses for districts located near popular charter schools in recent years.
Gov. Paul LePage, who has supported the change, is expected to sign the bill into law. The bill was enacted on an emergency basis, which means it will take effect in time for the next school year.
“Once that’s signed, school districts will know that they will not be paying the bill for charter schools come this fall,” said Suzan Beaudoin, the director of school finance and operations at the Maine Department of Education, in an interview Wednesday.
The current funding method has disproportionately affected school districts such as School Administrative District 49 in Fairfield; SAD 54 in Skowhegan; and SAD 59 in Madison, which are billed for the per-pupil cost of sending students to the nearby Maine Academy of Natural Sciences and Cornville Regional Charter Schools.
As the schools have grown, the cost of paying for local students has increased. Skowhegan schools were expecting to budget up to $1 million for charter school tuition costs next year. Fairfield-based SAD 49 was looking at an increase of more than eight times what it budgeted for 2014-15.
Under the proposed funding formula, charter schools would be treated as another school district with the state providing funding directly.
“This will relieve local districts from having to guess how many students are going to enroll in a charter school when they are budgeting,” said SAD 49 Superintendent Dean Baker.
Last year, SAD 49 budgeted $55,000 for charter school payments but was billed about $192,000 when more students attended the charter schools than expected. This year, SAD 49 budgeted $461,000 for payments to charter schools to cover an expected rise in enrollment from local students.
“This new funding method will relieve the unpredictable financial impact of charters to individual districts and is expected to be overwhelmingly supported by leaders of Maine’s school districts,” LePage’s office said in a statement Wednesday.
“The change will also allow Maine to move beyond the divisive debate about charter school funding and refocus on how to create opportunities for students to be the most successful at Maine public schools, whether they be charter or traditional,” the governor’s statement said.
Although the bill would ease budgeting for school districts, it also means that they could lose some state funding in the future.
Students who change to a charter school will be treated as if they moved to a new school district, and state funding will follow them, said Beaudoin, the eduction department’s finance director. The result will be a reduction in state education aid to a local district for each student who attends a charter school. But that amount is considerably less than the entire tuition bill for each student that local districts pay under the current rules.
The coming year is a grace period when schools won’t lose funding for the students who attend charter schools but also will not have to pay the school bills, Beaudoin said.
“It’s a good deal for the school districts,” she said. “That’s why they supported it.”
Some charter school leaders also like the plan.
Beyond the financial implications, shifting funding to the state might ease some of the animosity that has come with having traditional public schools make payments to charters, said Roger Brainerd, of the Maine Association of Charter Schools.
“We’re very happy to see the bill go through,” Brainerd said. “We’re happy to see the controversy go away.”
Charter school payments are estimated at $6 million, according to Beaudoin.
Local school officials now must take the charter funding out of their anticipated expense budgets.
In SAD 49, payments to charters accounted for more than a third of the projected $2.1 million budget increase facing property taxpayers. School Board Vice Chairwoman Shelley Rudnicki on Wednesday said she intended to make a motion to remove that expense from the budget at the annual budget meeting Thursday evening.
In SAD 54, the administration didn’t even wait to take the money out of the budget. Superintendent Brent Colbry said that his administration initially built in around $996,000 to pay for the 107 students it sends to charters but pulled the money out as the bill’s chances improved.
SAD 54, along with other districts, has been fighting for changes to how charter schools are funded for at least two years. The difference this year, Colbry said, is that other school districts that aren’t near a charter school are starting to feel the pinch from virtual charters, such as Maine Connections Academy, which opened in 2014.
“I think everyone is very confident it’s going to happen,” Colbry said.
“All it needs now is the governor’s signature.”
Peter McGuire — 861-9239