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August 20. 2014 8:42PM

School board holds hearing on proposed charter school in Windham

WINDHAM — Several weeks after a public hearing on a proposed new charter school raised many questions among citizens and district officials, questions still remained after Tuesday night’s Windham School Board meeting.

About 30 residents attended the public workshop meeting of board members and members of the Educational Choices Foundation, the group hoping to open the Windham Academy charter school by fall 2015.

The School Board has until Sept. 15 to decide whether they’ll accept the charter’s application.

Should they accept it, the charter will be sent to the state Department of Education for final approval. Even if the board doesn’t accept the charter, the ECF still has the option of seeking state’s approval, though such a situation would change the school’s funding structure.

From there an approved charter would be written into the 2015 Windham School District warrant and be voted on by citizens in March.

After hearing from dozens of citizens for and against the charter school, School Board chair Jerome Rekart said the district has been working with Attorney Gordon Graham to tackle some of the legal ramifications.

“Either way, this will be going to the state (DOE), who will determine whether they agree or disagree,” Rekart said. “If the board determines the contract isn’t satisfactory, the ECF has the right to appeal that decision and if the (DOE) agrees, it goes to our citizens for a warrant vote.”If opened, the Windham Academy would enroll up to 320 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The curriculum would focus heavily on STEM education, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Only one resident, Alan Carpenter, commented during this week’s workshop.

Carpenter asked the ECF to disclose their funding to date, and requested more details on how the charter school could potentially affect the local tax rate.“I think this proposal has merit, but it doesn’t appear to be a tax-saving event,” Carpenter said. “Also, I’m not sure at this time how the School Board can calculate (the Academy’s) impact on our current facilities. It’s not clear to me how a K through 8 charter would allow us to delay building a new facility or go through a significant remodel.”ECF officials said they weren’t prepared to discuss certain financial details this week and organization chair Sean Donahue said a location for the school couldn’t be finalized yet for a number of reasons.

“We don’t have approval yet and we can’t enter into a binding agreement with an entity that doesn’t exist,” Donahue said. “We don’t have funding yet, so we can’t enter into a lease agreement.”

A recent report compiled by district Business Administrator Adam Steel focuses on “a number of assumptions on how we would budget this charter school.”

Steel said the district would be responsible for providing 80 percent of tuition costs for each charter school student.

“It’s a concept that’s difficult to understand,” he added. “The district doesn’t take 100 percent of what we’re using and keep that extra 20 percent for us. This would be an expense for us.”

Windham district officials said about 10 percent of the Windham Academy’s students would come from out of town.

“This is important to note, because we wouldn’t be paying 80 percent for those students,” Steel said.

The Windham Academy is expected to open with about 160 students, adding 100 the second year and maxing out at 320 by its third year.

While ECF officials believe the charter school could stand to save taxpayers up to $1.8 million each year, district officials said they’re not quite sure.

The town’s tuition costs are currently $12,632 per pupil. “Eighty percent of that is $10,105,” Steel said. “Which means a tuition bill of $1,455,164 would go from the district to the charter school.”

To cover those costs, Steel said a slight reduction of labor might be one option, though hardly a simple solution.

Initial estimates indicate the charter school would average 18 students in each grade, numbers that some say would have little effect on the overall population.

“The net cost to the district is going to be a volatile number,” Steel said. “Because we don’t know how many students will actually be attending the charter school, or the ultimate ration of Windham students versus out-of-town students.”

aguilmet@newstote.com


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