Higley Unified School District will go ahead with plans to charter its two newest schools after a 3-2 vote Monday by the district board.
Citing the increase in additional money the district will receive, the board majority reaffirmed its decision to charter Cooley Middle School and Sossaman Middle School, which welcomed more than 1,800 students when they opened last week.
The board originally approved the chartering of the schools back in June, before the state-mandated deadline. But there was a question about whether or not the district would receive “growth money” it could receive for new enrollments.
The Attorney General ruled that the district would have to follow current practice and give up the "growth money" for the whole district if it chartered the two schools.
But the bottom line prevailed in the board decision. Though it will not receive $1.58 million it expected for the 395 students new to its campuses this year, that’s less than the $1.7 million it will receive for chartering the school this year. And it’s less than the $2.3 million in additional money it expects next year.
Board member Kim Anderson said her decision was based on the financial figures district CFO Kevin Hegarty presented.
“The additional money we get will make up for the loss,” she said.
Board member Venessa Whitener said this option is best for the district as it deals with education cuts and no money from the state to repair or build schoolss.
“A district charter is nonprofit, retains governing board authority and administration. Change only occurs at the funding level,” she said in an email. “There are different ways to bring in funding for schools (although minimal). This option appears to be beneficial, providing the most assistance with least amount of change, and no change in tax structure.”
According to a report by the Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee, when a district converts a school to charter, that district receives about $1,000 more per pupil than traditional district schools.
More than two dozen schools were expected to be converted to charter schools this year, not including Higley’s campuses. In addition, Maricopa Unified School District’s board voted this summer to charter all but three of its schools.
“As awareness of this option increases, we further forecast a total of 60 schools converting in FY 2015 (including the 30 from FY 2014). The FY 2016 estimate is a total of 90 charter conversions,” the report states.
There was discussion this past legislative session to halt the practice. While that did not occur, Anderson said she believes the Legislature will make that move soon.
“We realize the Legislature is looking at this and they’re probably going to put a moratorium on it. There’s not going to be an option for us to do it later. We think it will probably end,” she said.
Hegarty said that for the district and its middle schools, the only change with chartering them is in funding.
“Realistically, what everyone on the outside will see is no change. They operate under board policy. Teachers are employees of the district. They’re subject to all personnel policies,” he said.
Board member Jake Hoffman joined Kristina Reese in a vote against chartering the schools. In June, he told the Tribune that the idea is “fiscally irresponsible” and puts the district at risk because it would have to pay back all the additional money should a future board revoke the schools’ charters.
Hoffman said in an email the move was a significant financial risk for the district, adding, "Chartering these schools was not in the best interest of the Higley students or the community at-large."
"Our state and schools have been in uncharted waters dealing with our own recovery on the smallest education budget in the nation. It is resourceful and beneficial to seek out funding opportunities that can help build a foundation to help grow into our future," she said.
Prior to this year, the district ran kindergarten through eighth-grade elementary schools, plus its high schools. With the district’s seventh and eighth graders all at two centralized campuses, the district is able to offer more electives and more robust fine arts programs, Hegarty said.
Besides the fact that the district's eight elementary schools were getting full, the middle school option also makes sense for educating students, he said.
State law requires that the charter schools operate as “open enrollment” schools, but the district is offering transportation to students.
Because the district could not access bond money previously approved by voters, the new campuses were built by an outside group and are being leased by the district. Voters approved the lease option in November 2012.
Voters will again have a bond option on the ballot this year to provide funds for additional schools the district anticipates it will need.
“We need another school in the next two years,” Hegarty said. “We’ll need four more all together.”
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