Citing insufficient funding, PACE charter school to close at end of term

  • The PACE Charter High School in Pembroke will be closing at the end of the school year due to funding issues. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Students in the Art class at the Pace Career Academy Charter School in Pembroke on Tuesday, December 11, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 5/27/2021 4:01:36 PM

PACE Career Academy, a public charter school in Pembroke, will permanently close at the end of the academic year, citing financial strain from too little state funding to charter schools.

School officials announced the decision this week, saying the 10-year-old academy is “not financially viable going forward,” citing increasing requirements in staffing needed to serve students and families, paired with fundraising challenges.

“The decision to close is not a reflection of the resilience, dedication or commitment of the students, families and staff at PACE, but rather a reflection of the financial realities for charter schools in New Hampshire as a whole,” said board chair Clint Hanson.

PACE board members reviewed a cash flow analysis at a meeting on May 17 that showed the school would not be able to pay its bills in six out of the 12 months of the next fiscal year, even after they considered different staffing models and budget scenarios. Eventually, members realized the financial challenges were too great to continue. The formal decision to close will be discussed and ratified at a board of trustees meeting June 7.

Public charter schools receive funding from the state at a rate of $7,188 per student, money that follows the student if the student leaves a traditional public school, but that amount is a fraction of actual per-pupil costs. To make up the difference, individual schools are responsible for raising the remainder of their funds, but unlike other public schools, they don’t have the power of taxation. Hanson said the state funding is insufficient to serve the needs of the students who attend PACE. 

“We simply ran afoul of the way we fund schools,” Hanson said. “And that is going to perpetuate here in New Hampshire. The property tax is simply not designed to fund the types of programs that are out there.”

Public charter schools like PACE don’t have access to property tax revenue, which is the main way public schools are funded in New Hampshire.

The state has the lowest contribution of state money and the highest contribution of local money going to fund public education of all 50 states, according to the National Education Association’s 2021 Rankings and Estimates report

The school funding formula has been a decades-long debate in the Granite State, and the subject of a lawsuit by the Contoocook Valley School District and extensive study by the Commission to Study School Funding. A report released by the Commission in 2020 shows the current funding system creates inequity, as the “property rich” towns with wealthy local tax bases and high property values can generously fund their public schools, while the “property-poor” towns without a deep tax base struggle to provide even basic funding. 

In December, New Hampshire received $10.1 million – the first chunk of a $46 million federal grant – intended to increase the number of charter schools in the state over five years, a measure that was supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, who said expanding the number of charter schools would stretch thin the resources available for traditional public schools.

PACE, a 9-12 school, was founded in 2011 and is the only district-sponsored charter school in New Hampshire. PACE began as an alternative high school program in Allenstown, designed for students who are unsuccessful in traditional learning environments. The school moved to its current Pembroke location in 2018. The student body has remained small by design; this year’s enrollment was 66 and it has never surpassed 70. This year’s senior class of 14 is the largest graduating class of its time.

As the school year comes to a close, PACE will be working with students and families to help them transition back to their sending school districts or new locations as the charter program closes. Hanson said he plans to recommend to the Pembroke School Board that the district use funds from the sale of PACE’s Riverwood Drive building to create a new alternative high school program within the district.

“It's a program that is needed,” Hanson said. “Not all students will be able to be successful in what amounts to a traditional high school. Not all people learn the same way. I'm not aware of any other charter school or other alternative high school that could accommodate, or prepare students to be successful in that alternative environment.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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