Doing the math

Planners add up the cost of opening north Routt school

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The Steamboat school district has been beset by what Superintendent Cyndy Simms says are some of the most difficult budget issues she has dealt with in her career issues that have compelled her to testify before the Senate Education Committee in Denver to try to increase funding to the district. At the same time, the north Routt charter board members are trying to start up a school in just six months or more that may cost at least $189,000 to run in its first year. In meetings about the school, budget numbers loomed large, threatening to cast a shadow at times over the small children the two groups are trying to nurture.

FINANCIAL STRUGGLES

A charter school is a public school funded with public money that comes out of the local school district. It is established under a contract, or "charter," with the district that, in the case of the north Routt charter school, will last for three years. After the three years is up, the school can always go back to the school board and negotiate a new contract. The contract covers issues such as the school's academic mission and how it relates to that of the district, but is also heavily concerned with the money that will be changing hands.

The school would be funded out of the district's budget, which is collected from county property taxes. Those property taxes are sent to districts via a state-enforced finance formula which determines the amount of the dollars per pupil allocated each year. This year, the district received $5,868 per pupil.

The charter school, which is a public school and part of the district, would get 95 percent of the district's per pupil money for the students who attend the north Routt school. That per pupil funding could amount to as much as $145,000 if the school was able to find a facility that could hold 25 students, Simms said.

With the 18 students that the Moonhill Schoolhouse can hold, the district would initially be losing about $100,000. That number represents less than 1 percent of the district's overall budget, but, with teacher salaries unable to keep up with inflation rates, $100,000 is a lot of money, Simms said.

In meetings with the charter board members, Simms and District Accountability Committee Chair Pat Gleason asserted that the potential loss of $145,000 amounted to a direct unrecoverable hit to the district's budget. More importantly, that money could be taking away from students and teachers at some of the district's existing schools, they said.

Gleason noted that while support for the school was generally high, it was often less so in areas farther from the north Routt area where children could be impacted by the district's revenue losses.

"I think the support may be somewhat less outside the affected areas" he said.

Concerns about the financial impacts of the school were not relegated to the district's officials and board members. Members of the Steamboat Rotary Club expressed their concerns at a meeting on Jan. 9. In a survey distributed at the meeting, 39 percent of the rotary members indicated the financial impact on the RE-2 budget was of great concern, while another 26 percent claimed it was of some concern. The financial impact, however, was not enough to turn them off completely to the idea the rotary members, like a vast majority of the respondents at public meetings, favored the idea by a count of more than three to one.

On Jan. 29, the district school board agreed to accept the financial loss and allow the charter school to go ahead but attached strings to its approval that the charter board may spend the next three months attempting to cut off. For instance, because property taxes do not get distributed until March or April, the district decided to wait until next spring to send the charter school its first check. That means the charter school will have to find another source of income to get started.

The charter board is soon to be registered as a nonprofit organization, allowing it to apply for loans and grant money. The board is applying for a $100,000 grant from the state Education Department, which has $3.78 million to give out to charter schools this year.

SMALL ATTENDANCE CENTERS

The school board also placed a condition on the approval that would deny the charter school about 18 percent of its proposed funding, charter board member Sandy Clark said. That funding would come from state money that goes toward supporting "small attendance centers" like rural charter schools.

The small attendance center funding became the most prominent issue for the charter board, which is attempting to get by until March or April without their per-pupil funding. This attendance center funding, which the state provides for districts to operate schools more than 20 miles from the school the children would otherwise attend, could amount to about $40,000 based on the number of students, Clark said. Because the Moonhill Schoolhouse is less than 20 miles from Strawberry Park Elementary, that money would not be sent to the district anyway unless the charter school board found a new building, Clark said.

The school board's move to withhold the small attendance center funding would partially offset the loss of the district's per- pupil funding to the charter school, Simms said.

However, Colorado Depart-ment of Education charter school consultant Denise Mund said that the attendance center money is meant to be sent to the school itself, not to be held by the district.

"If that school has qualified for that money, it should be receiving it," Mund said.

Clark, the financial director of the charter board, said the loss of the attendance center money and the delay in the per pupil funding will not stop the charter school from opening later this year, but it takes the board away from other issues, like curriculum.

Based on favorable discussions with a lawyer, Clark said the board will likely challenge the local school board's ruling with the state Board of Education.

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