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September 21. 2012 12:44AM

Charter school funding dries up

State education officials will approve no more charter schools for the indefinite future, after the state Board of Education on Wednesday quickly read and adopted a moratorium that affects schools even in the pipeline.

Deputy Education Commissioner Paul Leather said eight new charter schools were approved over the last two years, and that’s led officials to exceed charter school spending by $5 million.

“We need to make this statement now,” said board member John Rist on Wednesday, stressing that schools in the planning stages need to know the money is not available.

“(Wednesday) was quite shocking, and there are a number of groups that feel like they just had the rug pulled out from under them,” Matt Southerton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools said in a email.

“What’s even worse though is that over the summer the Department of Education has been telling them not to worry, that they would be meeting with the commissioner soon and then go before the state board,” he wrote.

Southerton said he believes that four charter schools are awaiting approval by the state Board of Education, another was under review. Five more are in various stages of development and hoped to open in 2014, he said.

According to the state Education Department, the state budget devoted $9.02 million to charter schools this year, out of $955.7 million in state adequacy aid for the year.

The charter school earmark increases by about $300,000 in 2013.

In a message posted on its website, the Center for Innovative Schools said the state Legislature is responsible for the budget, and the Board of Education should approve or deny an application based on its merits.

A moratorium on charter schools should be up to the Legislature, the statement said.

But in its own statement, state Education Department officials said one of the criteria it examines when considering a school charter is revenue sources for two years.

“Given the current status of appropriations, this factor is the focus of the Board’s review,” the notice reads. Leather said education officials will not consider any other parts of a school charter, and schools can reapply in the future.

Charters can still be approved if they secure local funding sources, he said.

Across New Hampshire, 1,663 students are enrolled in charter schools, according to the Education Department. Each charter school receives about $5,450 in state funds per student.

Leather said spending on charter schools jumped this year because founders have learned to open a school in as little as a year.

And schools have opened in urban areas, such as Manchester, where more students live. One of those schools, the Mill Falls Charter School, operates out of the Union Leader Corp. building.

According to a tape of the Wednesday meeting, the state board took about seven minutes to deal with the issue. Leather brought it up, Rist and a few board members made statements, and the moratorium was voted in.

Southerton said it appears the decision was made in August and only formalized Wednesday.

Leather said state education officials had discussed a moratorium as one of several options to handle the budget problem. His department made no recommendation, and the decision on the moratorium was made by the Board of Education, he said.

State education officials notified the Legislature about the $5 million in overcommitted funds, and they will have to deal with it in January, Leather said.

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Mark Hayward may be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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