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November 08. 2012 11:43PM

$4.45 million for NH charter schools

CONCORD - The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee Thursday approved the necessary money to meet the state's obligation to the 17 charter schools operating today.

The committee approved $4.45 million to fully fund the state's tuition aid through the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.

The 2013 fiscal year budget is short about $5.3 million of what is needed for state aid to charter schools. Charter schools receive $5,250 in state aid for each student enrolled.

The state money became an issue after the State Board of Education in September denied all pending charter school applications, and said it would not accept any new applications until additional state money is allocated.

Thursday, Fiscal Committee Chair Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, said that, with the committee's action, the State Board of Education should lift its unauthorized moratorium on approving new charter school applications.

But last month the board reiterated it will not approve new applications until the new Legislature either includes additional money for more charter schools in the next budget or changes state law.

At the time, board chairman Tom Raffio said the decision is based on legal advice from the Attorney General's Office, which is concerned that the state may be liable for additional funding if the board approves new applications.

At Thursday's meeting, Weyler explained this fiscal year's shortfall stems from differences in the estimated number of charter school students between the schools' association and the Department of Education.

He said the House used the association's projections, while the Senate used the department's when members crafted the budget more than a year ago.

The compromise was to let the department spend 10 percent above its appropriation if a shortfall occurs and to allow the department to ask the fiscal committee for additional money if the 10 percent is not enough.

Weyler said lawmakers have always approved whatever money was needed for charter schools and would do so in the future.

But committee member Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover, was concerned "because this is not the way the budget process works. We don't tell departments 'Go spend whatever you need.'"

Sen. Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord, said lawmakers need to have a full discussion about charter schools, including what educational needs they meet and how much the state is willing to commit financially.

"You cannot go on and continue to approve new schools with no understanding what the spending is going to be," she said. "We're spending millions of dollars and we don't have a handle on this. This is the tip of the iceberg."

Larsen and Nordgren, the two Democrats on the committee, voted against the request.

Charter school advocates have argued the state board's decision to put off any new approvals for at least two months jeopardizes the planned 2013 opening for several schools, as well as federal grant money to assist with start-up costs.

Any new school approved now would not open for at least nine months to a year so there is sufficient time for lawmakers to appropriate the money.

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Garry Rayno may be reached at grayno@unionleader.com.


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