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Charter schools' lawsuit result of years of frustration, lack of transparency

Delaware Public Media

Fifteen Delaware charter schools are suing the Christina School District and the Delaware Department of Education over what they say is an unfair distribution of funding.

But tension between Delaware charter schools and the Christina School District is not new.


Court documents filed Tuesday hint at a building frustration from charter schools after requesting on numerous occasions to see copies of funds excluded from Christina’s operating expenses, both from the district itself and the Delaware Department of Education.


One occasion cited came from Christina’s referendum earlier this year when the suit says the district approached Newark Charter to ask for its support. In exchange for that support, Newark Charter asked for copies of the excluded line items – a promise they say went unmet.


Kendall Massett is Executive Director for the Delaware Charter Schools Network, an advocacy and support organization for charter schools in the First State.


She says the group has asked the Delaware Department of Education to investigate inconsistencies in the school funding formula for years, and says the schools haven’t gotten a clear answer.


“All we have ever asked for is just transparency: what is in that number? And we didn’t get it," Massett said. "It hasn't been very easy for our schools to figure out what a third of their budget would be. In many cases, one third of their budget is based on local funding."


Massett says some excluded line items that don’t factor into the pot of money divided between charter schools serving the district students – like tuition for students in the Christina School District’s special schools such as the School for the Deaf  and funds for the national school lunch program – are straightforward and easily understood.  


But not all of them.


“And then there’s this last bucket," she said. "It’s called the anything deemed inappropriate for inclusion by the secretary, or a better way – easier way to hear it in my mind – is anything deemed appropriate for exclusion by the secretary.”


Massett says she believes this bucket is responsible for funding inconsistencies across school districts.

The charter schools thought progress was made in addressing these inconsistencies after the charter bills - which had increased funding for the schools - were released in August.


The straw that broke the camel’s back for the charters came last month when DOE - facing pressure from the districts, lawmakers and others -  reversed course on those bills - and said no changes in funding would be made, after the charters started finalizing their budgets.


“So they started making decisions based on that number they were given August 12th. They started finalizing any potential purchase decisions or hiring people," Massett said. "And then to be told one month later, oh yeah, no, sorry we’re not going to be able to give that to you this year. They’d already made those decisions. They’d already hired people.”


Massett says the dollars should be following the students, and in Christina’s case she isn’t convinced they are.

In a legislative briefing on the issue early last month, Christina CFO Bob Silber stressed that it’s not a district’s decision – but the Delaware Department of Education’s decision – to determine which funds are excluded or included.


On Thursday, Silber said he couldn’t comment on the pending litigation, but stands by the briefing.


“Everything that we would say, we’ve already said," Silber said. "The district is aware of the lawsuit, and we’ll respond accordingly. But at this point in time, we have no additional comments to make.”

Silber’s presentation is now available on Christina’s website.


The Delaware Department of Education responded to the suit in a statement saying it continues to address how districts provide funding to other districts and charter schools as well as inconsistencies they’ve found in that funding calculation.


While they weren’t able to provide the specifics of pending litigation, they said they look forward to defending DOE’s prior decisions and have committed to a series of meetings with district and charter leaders to ensure that inconsistencies are eliminated for the next school year.


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