Forest Grove charter seeking more cash from school district
The Forest Grove Community School is seeking a 2 percent funding increase from the Forest Grove School District this year, after concerns were raised about money withheld by the district each year from the charter school.
Last year, the Forest Grove School Board approved a 3 percent funding increase for the Forest Grove Community School, but Principal Vanessa Gray said there is still excess money being held by the district for the community school.
The playing field is already uneven, Gray argued, with charter schools in Oregon receiving just 58 percent of the funding that traditional public schools get, according to a report from The Chalkboard Project.
Not only are charter schools ineligible for passing bonds or using many other traditional school funding sources, but school districts are also allowed to hold up to 20 percent per pupil of funding for students in kindergarten through the eighth grade from charter schools, Gray said.
"At the end of last year, the district did a study of what the expenses were associated with the charter school," she said. "When (they) did that evaluation and that assessment, what (they) found was that the district was retaining in excess of services, about $90,000. So they were retaining more funds than they could demonstrate they were using for charter school purposes."
This prompted Gray to propose the initial 3 percent funding increase, but she said seeking another 2 percent, to bring the total raise to 5 percent, would be more "fair."
The school district was previously holding 15 percent of the funding, or $90,000, which changed to 12 percent last year with the end-of-year approval, retaining $45,000, Gray said. Now, she hopes the district will retain just 10 percent of the funding.
Tami Montague, the Forest Grove School District's chief financial officer, said Gray's arguments are valid — but budgeting for districts is a "balancing act," she noted.
"The district receives a specific amount of money for each of the students that attend the charter school because we are their sponsoring district. They can't receive money directly, so it flows through us," Montague said. "Of the 12 percent that we keep, we are paying out indirect costs for services that we provide and don't bill them for. Whatever the needs of the students that are attending there, the district is responsible for providing those services."
Montague said the issue is that the cost per student varies each year, depending on the needs of each student, and is something the district can't predict. For example, if there are more students in special education, the district will be spending more on services for the school, she said.
"In some years, that cost (per student) exceeds the amount that we receive. Some years it is a positive cash flow for us, and some years it is not a positive cash flow, depending on what those services cost," she said. "So if we had a really high-needs kid come into the school, the district still retains the responsibility to provide all the services that that kid needs."
Last year, however, Montague said the district was inclined to approve the 3 percent funding proposal because the point-in-time report showed that the district had more money from the charter school that year than it had spent on it.
"That clearly showed there was probably a little room for additional funding from the amount of money, in that year," she said. "I think the district, when they made the decision, was comfortable with the 88 percent because it was based on the findings of that report."
Having money left over in some years is an intentional decision made by the district to leave wiggle room for extra costs they can't predict, Montague said, but last year, there was enough wiggle room to increase the funding.
"At 88 percent, it was closer to breaking even than it was at 85 percent, and so that's why they increased it at that time. But they wanted to leave a little cushion to make sure that we wouldn't get way far behind in a year where services were costing more," she said. "The charter school brought the request (this year) and the district is considering it as part of its budget process, to see what all of the needs of the district are and balancing all of that. I believe (the Community School) provides an incredibly valuable service to the community."
The 2 percent funding increase would bring the charter school about $30,000 more per year, and the school has no shortage of needs for the money, Gray said.
The Forest Grove Community School is is need of many facility improvements, including security and safety upgrades to the building, and with the staff already earning less than other public school teachers in the district, being able to maintain salary increases with the additional funding would help the school better demonstrate their objectives, Gray said, just to name a few needs.
Many Community School staff members spoke out during a Forest Grove School Board meeting several weeks ago on Monday, May 14, sharing the school's achievements and why the additional funding is essential to better the student's learning experience.
"Like any school, we have many different students and families, but the nature of a public charter school is to attract families whose kids have struggled to find academic and social success in other schools," said Stephanie Woods, who teaches art and works as an experiential learning coordinator at the Community School. "That is not the case for all of our students by any means, but is something we often hear from parents who observe in our classrooms. I think it is a proven strength of ours, that serving these kids who haven't done well elsewhere is a great strength of ours."
With 204 students total, the Community School has been able to cater to a niche group of students over the 11 years it has been operating, Gray said. She believes it has been beneficial in providing diverse options for the district, having been one of the founders of the school herself.
"We provide another option that can work for some kids, and we have demonstrated that," she said. "I think there's now just broad support and acknowledgement that we fill a particular niche in the district. I think this district is great in that we have some really excellent programs for Spanish-speaking families, we have some inclusion programs that are really strong, and this is another offering within the district that I think makes it able to better meet the needs of diverse students."
The Forest Grove School Board will vote on the proposal at the meeting on Monday, June 11. Gray said she and staff members are grateful to simply have their voices heard.
"We have a really strong relationship with the district, and the district is really supportive of us," she said. "Some districts have very contentious relationships with their charter schools. ... We are known as a district that has a really positive relationship. And the fact that the district is listening to this appeal — they don't have to. They are definitely listening and trying to make a good decision."
By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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