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September 02. 2012 10:38PM

State's 17 charter schools start year with fresh visions


Mindy Kacavas, a teacher assistant, prepares a sign for new students during an open house for Mill Falls School, a new Montessori charter school in Manchester. (Thomas Roy/ Union Leader)

Teachers set up a classroom at the Mill Falls School in Manchester. The Montessori charter school opened its doors to students last week. (Thomas Roy/ Union Leader)

Terri Harris is a founding parent for the Mill Falls School, a Montessori charter school in Manchester. (Thomas Roy/ Union Leader)
Seventeen charter schools are beginning new years across the state.

Meryl Levin, chairman of the board of trustees for the Mill Falls Charter School in Manchester, was happy to welcome students last week to the state's first public Montessori school.

“Charter schools offer the potential for research and development, providing the public school system with space, time and support to develop practices beyond the traditional methods of education,” said Levin. “The response to our mission, goals and plans has been amazing.”

Another new charter school, the Birches Academy of Academics and Art in Salem, is set to welcome students this week.

“We are so very excited to welcome our students into our new school,” said Dr. Dael Angelico-Hart, head of school at the Birches.

She added: “Integrating the arts in a real way to help learning occur for each and every child has always been a dream of mine I hope to realize fully at The Birches.”

The state designates charter schools as “independent public schools.” They have a contract, or charter, that lays out each school's academic goals and accountability requirements; each school has a board of trustees.

To open, charter schools need either local authorization, typically through a warrant article seeking voter approval to fund the school, or state authorization, from the New Hampshire Board of Education. All 17 schools in New Hampshire are state-approved.

Because state-approved schools do not get money from local school districts, they do not have to comply with local academic policies and have “greater flexibility to institute new innovative educational approaches,” according to Roberta Tenney, administrator for the Office of School Standards in the state's Department of Education, whose office oversees charter schools in New Hampshire.

For example, the Birches Academy of Academics and Art in Salem, the Polaris and Mill Falls charter schools in Manchester, and the Robert Frost Charter School in North Conway all will feature mixed-age classrooms where students learn by completing projects and presentations.

Who gets what?

To help pay the bills, state-authorized charter schools receive from the Department of Education an “adequacy funding allocation” of $3,450 and “disparity aid” of $2,000, for a total of $5,450 per student. The state gives the same total to traditional public schools. Charter schools can also get Title I money administered through the state; Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP) initiatives designed to help districts that lack personnel and resources compete effectively for competitive grants from the federal government; and money for each student eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

Surry Village Charter School, for example, last school year received $5,450 per student from the state, $14,000 in Title I money, $18,000 in REAP funds and $1,770 for each student eligible for food assistance, according to Executive Director Matora Fiorey.

Fiorey also said her school engages in fundraising campaigns, raising more than $80,000 last school year.

When a student transfers from a traditional school to a state-approved charter school, the state aid moves with him or her. State-authorized charter schools do not get any tax money from local school districts, which means charter schools do not affect a host community's tax rate, officials said.

If a charter school were to be approved by a local school district rather than by the state, it would receive a minimum of 80 percent of the per-pupil spending in that district. None of the charter schools in New Hampshire sought local authorization to open.

Who spends what?

Charter schools are required to take students from any district, but no more than 10 percent of the students in any one grade are eligible to transfer in any school year without local school board approval, Tenney said.

Last school year, the Seacoast Charter School in Kingston had students from 39 towns, but did not receive any “district tax dollars,” said Marc Brown, the school's business manager, “which means that parents are paying educational tax dollars to their resident district, but their children aren't receiving any of the benefits of those tax dollars.”

Public schools spent about $11,753 per student in 2011-12, according to the state's Center for Education Reform. Charter schools spent between $5,500 and $9,500, according to the Department of Education.

State regulations require charter schools to file quarterly financial statements with the DOE's Office of Accountability, to show how the funds are being used. Examples of allowable expenditures for these funds are equipment and materials for classrooms (desks, chairs, textbooks, etc.), as well as salaries. Purchases such as buses or vans, roofing, or the paving of driveways are not allowed.

Teacher pay

As with any public school, teacher wages and benefits are among the expenses at charter schools. Charter school teachers are not required to join the state union, and none has.

“We would love to have them, if they wanted to unionize,” said Benjamin Dick, president of the Manchester Education Association. “They would have to pursue that at the state level, but if they wanted to unionize, we would love to have them. If not, you can't force them to, if they took a job at a location where there was no union available.”

According to the state Department of Education, the average annual salary for a full-time teacher in New Hampshire for the 2010-11 school year was $52,706. For the nine charter schools that reported salary information to the DOE, the average was $33,740.

The highest salary for a charter school was paid by Great Bay eLearning Charter School in Exeter — $49,518. The lowest was the Strong Foundation Charter School, at $28,096 a year. Seacoast paid $38,170.

All charter school teachers are part of the state retirement program, and contracted full-time employees are eligible for health benefits.

pfeely@unionleader.com

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