Charter school moratorium could be lifted
CONCORD - The charter school moratorium could be lifted as soon as November if legislative budget writers approve an additional $5 million next month.
State Board of Education Chair Tom Raffio told key lawmakers that the board would consider applications again if there was some assurance additional state money would be forthcoming.
'If there is some demonstration the money will be there, we could move forward with the applications,' Raffio told members of the House finance and education committees Tuesday.
Several lawmakers chastised the state school board for its action, saying it put a damper on enthusiasm for charter schools.
'This is a flat moratorium. It's very disappointing the way this was handled,' said education committee member Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill. 'Someone let the ball drop and that is too bad for the children.'
Raffio said communications could have been handled better, but there was no intent to hurt the children.
In fact, he said, the decision was made to protect children and their parents from charter schools opening and then having to close because the state did not provide adequate funding.
Charter schools receive $5,450 in state aid for each pupil and most depend on that money for financial viability.
The board voted last week to institute the moratorium after members learned there would be a $5 million shortfall in state aid for charter schools this fiscal year. With additional charter schools approved and ready to open beginning next September, the board decided to deny any new applications until additional state money is available.
The action upset plans for several charter schools waiting for final approval and expecting to open next fall. It also upset lawmakers who believed they provided a process to increase charter school funding in the event of a shortfall.
Budget writers included a provision that allowed the Department of Education to request more money if a shortfall were to occur in charter school funding.
Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee chair Rep. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, said he had discussions with Department of Education officials about the shortfall and expected to see a request for the additional $5 million, but had not.
Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Paul Leather said the request would be made for the Fiscal Committee's next meeting. Weyler said he believes the committee will approve it.
Lawmakers lamented the effect the moratorium has had on the growing charter school community and several called the decision arbitrary.
'All of a sudden there's no more charter schools,' said Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge. The existing charter schools 'say 'What is going to happen to me in 2013?''
Leather said existing charter schools are asking the department if their state aid will be pro rated, so they would be receiving less money, but the intent is for the state to move forward with charter schools.
House Deputy Speaker Pamela Tucker, R-Greenland, noted several planned charter schools were close to final approval and added there is an economic impact to the board's moratorium. 'Hundreds of hours of work have gone into these proposals,' she said. 'The impact of your decision has far reaching affects.'
Raffio said the work will not be lost if the financial question is the only remaining issue. He said those applications can come back before the board as early as its November meeting once the fiscal committee votes to approve the additional $5 million.
House Education Committee chairman Rep. Michael Balboni, R-Nashua, agreed finances is one criteria for the board to decide on a charter school application, but noted a blanket moratorium may not follow the law.
He said each application has to be either approved or denied and if it is denied an explanation of why it was rejected.
Both Raffio and Leather said that each of the 15 applicants will be informed of the board's decisions.
Weyler said the fiscal committee meets Oct. 26, and he hoped Raffio and the board would make an announcement at its October meeting that the moratorium would be lifted to relieve the parents of charter school children who have been ill-served by what has happened.
Weyler noted that both the Senate and House finance committees and leadership support charter schools.
House Finance Committee member Rep. Will Smith, R-New Castle, urged the state board to rescind its moratorium at its October meeting.
'That's fairly important to the whole charter school process,' he said.
Raffio said he did not want to move forward until the fiscal committee had acted, but agreed there could be some kind of conditional approval dependent on future state funding of charter schools.
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Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..