Settlement dollars flowing to charters still being calculated, $1.5 million estimated
The Christina School District expects only $1.5 million of the $5.5 million dollars in revenue raised in its 2003 referendum will make its way to charters as part of the recently settled lawsuit.
The lawsuit settlement hinged mainly on funds associated with the district’s two-part 2003 referendum, according to Christina School District Chief Financial Officer Robert Silber.
That year, voters authorized two tax increases. One was for a 10-cent tax increase for every $100 of assessed property value to help district students, but the funding was restricted for use in four specific areas: full-day kindergarten for academically at-risk students, expansion of programs for gifted students, expansion of services for alternative programs and technology replacement.
The revenue Christina received through that increase amounted around $5.5 million that year – revenue that Silber says DOE authorized as an exclusion from the cost per student figure used to determine how much money flows from the district to charters serving its students.
“And the problem with allowing those dollars to included, is once it goes to the charter schools through this formula, it goes to a charter school as an unrestricted money, which is against what the taxpayers said the money should be used for," Silber said.
Those restricted funds weren’t shared with charter school students in FY14, 15 or 16. But the long-standing funding dispute re-surfaced when the state Department of Education began discussing changes in funding protocols earlier this year. That discussion ultimately led 15 charters to file a lawsuit against Christina and the Delaware Department of Education.
As part of a settlement agreement approved Monday by all parties, money from the 2003 referendum still won’t be used to determine the cost per student figure going forward.
Instead, it will be divided among charters according to the number of students attending their schools – and still must be used for the four different funding areas presented to taxpayers in 2003.
Silber says it’s DOE’s responsibility to follow up with the schools to make sure they use those funds properly.
The Delaware Charter Schools Network’s Kendall Masssett says she doesn’t see that being an issue, citing at least one example of where the money could land.
“We have had kindergartens in charter schools since 1997," Massett said.
Massett adds that depending on the school, funds could find their way to other programs or tech replacement consistent with the 2003 referendum.
In exchange, the charters agreed to withhold all claims on additional funding for the past three school years.
The total figure the charters will receive has yet to be determined. Silber says they’re still finalizing a count of the number of district students attending charters – which he says is a lengthy process but must be complete by December 30th.
“We have to go through every one of those addresses for students and either object or accept that the information is correct," Silber said. "I’ve seen circumstances where a charter school will say, in error, that a student that lives in Smyrna belongs to the Christina School District. They made a mistake, so we have to capture that and get it corrected so that Smyrna gets billed for that student not Christina. All of that takes time.”
Ultimately, Silber expects the figure to be around $1.5 million. And as a taxpayer himself, he feels that is a fair amount.
"I’m a taxpayer, I voted for this thing," Silber said. “The ballot didn’t say ‘only for the benefit of the students attending the Christina School District.'”
An additional one-time $150,000 payment will also be made from the district to be shared among the 15 charters.
Silber doesn’t think the payout will have a big impact on its district students, at least not this year. He says because last year’s referendum was successful, programs won’t be cut this year.
But he’s not sure how it will impact district students down the road – with the settlement agreement opening up a window for a larger discussion around school funding to take place including issues such as match taxes, tuition taxes and more.
Massett is happy that a decision has been reached, and shares Silber's optimism that the process will be more transparent going forward.
“I’m absolutely thrilled," Massett said.“We are so pleased that we can move forward and do great things for kids now. This is not taking up our time. While extremely important and necessary – it was a necessary step- this takes away from doing great things from kids, but we had to.”
The DOE has agreed to release a memorandum by January 15th of next year explaining its protocol for district and charter funding issues going forward.