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November 09. 2012 7:46PM

Charter school funding OK -- at least for now

CONCORD - The state's charter schools may have the money they need from the state for the 2013 fiscal year, but the State Board of Education is not going to consider applications until next year.

The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee approved about $4.4 million Thursday to cover the state's obligation to all 17 charter schools.

The chairman of the state board called the committee's action "a good sign." However, board chair Tom Raffio said, "until we know what the fiscal 2014 budget for charter schools will be, we haven't changed position because we can't obligate the new Legislature."

Raffio hopes the Legislature will act quickly to set the money for charter schools or change state law so the board can entertain new applications in the first quarter of next year, but noted the state budget may not be decided until June.

"I told the charter school folks, like Gate City in Nashua, as soon as this is resolved we would take up their application," Raffio said.

While the Fiscal Committee approved the money to cover the shortfall for this fiscal year, the Executive Council still needs to approve the additional money. The request could be added to the council's agenda for its Wednesday meeting.

The 2013 fiscal year budget for charter schools was $9.3 million, while the total state aid needed is $14.6 million. Charter schools receive $5,250 in state aid for each student enrolled in the school.

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.

Fiscal Committee Chair Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, explained this fiscal year's shortfall stems from differences in the estimated number of charter schools students between the charter schools' association and the Department of Education.

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, he said.

State education officials had already received the additional 10 percent over budget or about $930,000, which brought the total to $10.2 million.

Raffio said state aid for charter schools for the 2014 fiscal year budget is projected to be $16.7 million due to enrollment increases and the opening of a new charter school in Derry.

"I'm not worried about that money. The state has always met its obligation," Raffio said. "It's the money above that for additional schools that has yet to be approved."

He said due to criticism from lawmakers about low enrollment estimates in the past, the DOE now estimates the total needed for all new charter school applications, pending at some stage before the board, is $25.6 million, or about $8 million or $9 million more than what is needed next fiscal year.

Some charter school officials contend much less additional money is needed because only one or two new charter schools will be opening two years from now.

grayno@unionleader.com

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