- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2004

FREDERICK, Md. — Founders of Maryland’s only charter school are still learning, two years after opening their trailblazing institution.

One of the most important lessons involves money, and it applies to each of the 50 groups statewide seeking a charter from their local school board to open a quasi-independent school. Charter schools are public institutions run by private groups that have more freedom than conventional schools to set curricula and policies.

The state’s 2003 charter-school law requires local boards of education to provide funding to charter schools “commensurate” with what the district’s other schools receive. That leaves ample room for interpretation, as leaders of the Monocacy Valley Montessori Public Charter School learned last month when Frederick County school officials told them that this year they would get less money than they expected.

Instead of $6,443 per pupil, the amount the group had budgeted for, they will receive $5,994, the same as last year, school system administrators decided. That amounted to a $40,000 cut in the school’s operating budget, from $1.35 million to $1.31 million.

The difference reflects, in part, a change in the school system’s valuation of central-office functions available to the charter school, Monocacy Valley leaders said. The more services system administrators decide the charter school can obtain from the central office, the fewer dollars they must allocate for charter-school operations.

Unless negotiations restore the funds, the charter school, located in the leased offices of a former warehouse, must postpone purchases of library books and playground equipment so it can pay its instructors, parents said.

“Obviously, the dollars we receive have a direct impact on the success of our school,” said John Borgersen, whose daughter, Hanne, will be in fifth grade this fall.

“The results of this negotiation will be vitally important on a statewide scale, as it will set an important precedent concerning the process by which charter schools will be funded,” Mr. Borgersen said.

His wife, Cynthia Wilcox, a member of the school’s governing council, said the question of what constitutes “commensurate” funding should be answered at the state level.

“If you look at other states that have charter-school policies, they really do specify what the funding level needs to be, and it’s possible that’s where this will get resolved,” she said.

Bill Rinehard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the charter-school law is intentionally vague on that point.

“Some states did include a formula, but when the legislation was drafted, it was felt that might be a little bit too restrictive,” Mr. Rinehard said.

The state school board supports the concept of local control, “so we wanted the school systems to have the freedom to come up with their own formulas.”

Disputes can be appealed, Mr. Rinehard said.

Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, said commensurate funding “is a huge problem.” She said that while the state cannot mandate a funding formula, it could suggest a model for districts to follow.

Miss Gardner likes a proposal in Harford County, where the school system would divide the cost of its services by the number of students systemwide and then offer those services for sale to the charter school.

“If $10 per student is the cost to provide human resource services and the charter school wants to buy that from the district, it can buy that from the district or it can handle it in-house or contract for it elsewhere, or whatever,” Miss Gardner said.

For two years, leaders of the Monocacy Valley school in Frederick have worked hard to open and expand the institution. It started as K-6, added a seventh grade last year and will have preschool and eighth-grade classes this fall, with a total enrollment of 228.

If they had to start over, Leslie Mansfield, president of the group that holds the charter, said she would seek more advice from small-business owners who understand money matters.

“You have to essentially get the biggest bang for your buck at a school like this, so you need people that are very savvy in how to stretch those dollars,” she said.

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