First round of charter-school payments exceeds projections

The largest chunk to offset facilities costs goes to the Idaho Virtual Academy online.

Idahoednews.comJune 17, 2014 

A small lump sum went to Wings Charter Middle School in Twin Falls, which closed its doors last month.

Last week, the State Department of Education divvied up just more than $2 million for Idaho's 47 charter schools - the first-of-its kind payments under a charter facilities law passed by the 2013 Legislature.

That's a higher price tag than originally forecast, when the charter facilities bill passed after extensive debate and over the objections of Democrats and some Republicans. The fiscal note attached to the law pegged first-year costs at about $1.4 million.

Instead, the bottom line came to $2,025,054.72.

The sum charter schools receive for facilities is tied to the amount of money traditional public schools receive for facilities. In 2013-14, public schools received $164.3 million from voter-approved bond issues and plant facilities levies, or $609.54 per student. The charter facilities law guaranteed charter schools 2013-14 payments of $121.91 per student, or 20 percent of what public schools receive for facilities. This rate will increase to 30 percent in 2014-15.

For most charter schools with a traditional physical presence, the formula is fairly straightforward and based solely on enrollment. For example, Eagle's North Star Charter School is in line to receive $119,593.71 based on its enrollment of 981.

But as with many things related to school funding, the details get complicated quickly.

Idaho Virtual Academy received $132,330, a sum based on the online school's facilities needs. Online charter schools can get a partial reimbursement for the facilities they do maintain, such as administrative offices or testing facilities, Education Department spokeswoman Camille Wells said Monday. That's why a portion of facilities dollars went to IDVA, even though the school's 3,000 students take classes remotely at home.

Meanwhile, Wings received $8,899.43, weeks after the alternative middle school closed, citing high facilities costs and shrinking enrollment. Wings was still eligible for a payment, since it represented a reimbursement for 2013-14 expenses, Wells said.

The payments help offset facilities costs, said Terry Ryan, president of the Idaho Charter School Network, but traditional and charter schools are still pinched by a lean state budget: "It's still asking schools to operate on lean margins."

For charter schools, the problems can be acute. Struggling schools such as Wings may be done in by high facilities costs, low enrollment and meager per-pupil support. Charter schools with a long waiting list - schools that have "created a model that works," said Ryan - may still be uneasy about incurring the risk of expanding facilities.

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