Four new charter schools seek approval
Four new charter schools will seek approval from the state Board of Education this month after nearly a year of waiting during a moratorium.
Last September, the board announced a halt on new charter schools because there wasn’t any money left in the budget for the $5,450 per student in adequacy payments the state must give charter schools. But the Legislature recently solved that problem by including $3.4 million for new charter schools in the budget for the biennium that began Monday. It also adopted a new rule saying the board can’t deny charter school applications solely based on lack of funding, effectively preventing the board from enacting future moratoriums regardless of available money.
The schools that have been waiting met with state Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry last month and will make final presentations to the board July 18. If approved, they’ll open in the fall of 2014. Those schools are: Gate City Charter School for the Arts in Nashua, Seacoast High School for the Arts in Derry, Mountain Village Charter School in Plymouth and Founders Academy in Londonderry. Another school, Innovative Futures Technical Academy in Dover, decided not to seek charter status because the founders don’t want to deal with state approval.
Organizers of these schools were surprised last year when they heard about the temporary hold on charter schools. Several had been preparing for summer presentations that kept getting delayed until the moratorium was announced.
“It was a complete shock to have gone through that entire process, and then it felt like the rug was really pulled right out from under (us),” said Thea Dodds, treasurer for Mountain Village, which would run a Montessori-style program.
If approved, those four schools will join 18 other charter schools in the state, one of which is opening this fall. The $3.4 million in the state budget could fund more than four schools, depending on how many students enroll at each one. Once a charter school is approved, the state guarantees the adequacy money for future years, said Tom Raffio, chairman of the state Board of Education. In addition to the $3.4 million for new charter schools, the state budget includes nearly $40 million for already existing charter schools.
Gate City in Nashua would enroll up to 180 students and already has at least 175 interested families, said Karin Cevasco, co-chairwoman of the school. Although the delay was unexpected, it gave the school’s development committee time to strengthen its plan and build up resources, she said.
“It felt very disappointing and frustrating, but since then we’ve come to peace with the decision,” Cevasco said.
The school also had to put some things on hold, such as finding a building. None of the schools can submit applications for federal grants or form official boards until each has state approval.
Seacoast Charter School, which intended to open in Exeter, was recently told by Barry that the state doesn’t need another charter school in the Seacoast area because there are already two, said Chairwoman Wendie Leweck. The school will now be located in Derry right over the Salem border and will likely change its name. More than 300 families in the Seacoast area expressed interest, and it’s disappointing it won’t be available for those families, Leweck said.
The high school would take up to 40 students in each of the four grades, and there would be four main programs: dance, music, theater and visual arts. Like the founders at Gate City, the board members spent the length of the moratorium fine-tuning their business plan.
“We didn’t entirely take a break,” Leweck said. “We kept working, knowing and hoping with all good faith that this moratorium would be reversed.”
Charter school advocates say the moratorium was a way for the state to play politics with charter schools. By putting a ban in place before budget negotiations began, it gave legislators a chance to use charter schools as a bargaining chip, said Matt Southerton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools.
“Over the months it became clear that (charters) were being used as a political pawn,” he said.
Raffio said the board supports charters but did not want to give approval if the state didn’t have enough money to fund them.
“We did ultimately get the line item in the budget that we need,” he said. “If the body politic is in favor of charter schools, we just need to make sure there is money for it.”
It’s possible the board could face a scenario of unknown funding every two years as the Legislature draws up a new state budget, Raffio said. Even though the new law says the board can’t deny applications solely based on funding, financial stability is one criterion for approving schools.
In 2003, the state began a 10-year pilot program giving the state board the power to approve up to 20 charters. Before to that, charters needed approval from the state and local boards, which slowed the process so much that no charter schools opened in New Hampshire between 1995, when they were first approved, and 2003. In 2011, the Legislature passed a bill making the pilot program permanent and lifting that 20-school cap.
But Raffio said the state board will hold a conference in late summer or fall to discuss whether a long-term policy on charter schools is needed. Now, students in charter schools account for about 1.5 percent of all school-age children in the state. That number has grown substantially in recent years. In 2007, there were about 325 students enrolled in charter schools; now that number tops 3,000.
“At some point,” Raffio said, “we have to say, how many charter schools do we want?”
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @kronayne.)
The original version of this article misstated the proposed location for the Founders Academy. If approved, it plans to open in Londonderry. This article has been changed to clarify the availability of funding to charter schools that are already approved. Once a school is approved, the state guarantees funding for future years. It does not promise additional funding for enrollment growth, but charters have received funding for growth in the past.