Schools look for funding fix

Rep. Sandra Major addresses a question about cyber-charter school reforms at the Susquehanna & Wyoming Counties Legislative Meeting held Tuesday, March 26 at Blue Ridge, while Aaron Shenk, Dep. Secretary of Legislative Affairs Education Dept. and Blue Ridge Board Vice President Christina Cosmello listen to the discussion.

Rep. Sandra Major addresses a question about cyber-charter school reforms at the Susquehanna & Wyoming Counties Legislative Meeting held Tuesday, March 26 at Blue Ridge, while Aaron Shenk, Dep. Secretary of Legislative Affairs Education Dept. and Blue Ridge Board Vice President Christina Cosmello listen to the discussion.

BY STACI WILSON

The increase in popularity of cyber-charter and charter schools offers parents more options on the education front.

But those personal options come at a hefty price for local school districts.

During a meeting held last week between local school officials, superintendents and legislators and agency representatives, the cost of the cyber-charter option came under fire.

Bill Goldsworthy of Governor Tom Corbett’s Scranton office said charter and cyber-charter schools are the number one issue brought to his attention in meetings with area superintendents.

It’s a message of cost inequities of the system that Montrose Area Superintendent Michael Ognosky brought to those gathered at the meeting.

“We need help with the things we spend money on that are inequitable,” Ognosky said.

He pointed out the since 2006-07, the Montrose Area School District has spent about $2.6 million for charter/cyber-charter schools, receiving at one point up to about a $250,000 reimbursement on those costs.

The funding for a 30 percent reimbursement to school districts for each students enrolled in a charter or cyber-charter school has been cut from school budgets in the past two years.

Ognosky said that Montrose spends about $11,000 per pupil to the cyber-charters cost of about $5,200; but he said, the district pays the cyber-charter the full per student cost.

The superintendent also said that when some students leave the traditional, brick and mortar school for the cyber-charter option many are being given an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

“The $11,000 becomes $22,000 arbitrarily,” Ognosky said. “I’m not even sure how (the students) are assessed.”

Blue Ridge board president Laurie Brown-Bonner added, “They are not held to the same standards as public schools. We want them to stop taking our tax dollars and funds from the school.

Mountain View board president Thomas Stoddard asked, “What gives charter and cyber-charter schools the ability to survive with such obvious inequities?”

Montrose Area Superintendent Michael Ognosky advocated for the state to fix the funding inequities public schools face regarding charter and cyber-charter schools.

Montrose Area Superintendent Michael Ognosky advocated for the state to fix the funding inequities public schools face regarding charter and cyber-charter schools.

Ognosky said that 50 students enrolled in a cyber-charter school were now costing the district about $750,000.

Of those students, the superintendent said just under 10 of them had been homeschooled during their elementary school years.

“Montrose is now paying for kids it was never paying for before now that the students are in high school and the parents can’t do the work,” he said.

So many things are wrong with the management of the cyber-charters, Ognosky said adding that about one-third of the distance based learning schools had been “in a fix” in the past few years.
“This is the same discussion as we had five years ago about the hiring practices and level of accountability,” Ognosky said. “For us, take care of the funding inequity – then chip away at everything else but help us. It would save my district two and one-half mills.”

Rep. Sandra Major (111th) told the group that charter and cyber-charter proponents have strong voices in the capitol. “It’s always about a compromise to get something done in Harrisburg,” she said.

Elk Lake’s Chuck Place said the silent majority of people support the brick and mortar traditional schools.

But Major also mentioned that the currently House majority leader, Rep. Mike Turzai, has made charter and cyber-charter reform a priority for this legislative session.

Turzai’s reform package includes tackling charter and cyber-charter special education funding; the pension/doubledip; cyber funding reforms; redefining financing uses; direct payment by the Dept. of Education; and longer charter terms.

Major told the school representatives, “I support reform. I absolutely get it.”

Although the bulk of the night’s discussion focused on charter and cyber-charter funding issues, other topics, including pension reform, also received attention for policy makers and the attendees.

Hannah Barrick, PSBA Government Relations Director, said she anticipates the start of a conversation on pension reform in the State House and Senate soon.

Possibilities of reform include a move from the fixed benefits of the past to new employees being brought in under a defined contribution program.

Barrick said she expected pension reform to be one of the “next big fights to happen.”

And Aaron Shenk, Deputy Secretary of Legislative Affairs Education Dept. said, “Pension reform is a critical issue that must be addressed.”

And Bonner asked Major and Tom Yoniski of Sen. Lisa Baker’s office about reform measures.

Major said the House Republican Caucus is studying the issue which has been identified as a huge problem.

She said she was hopeful that with input from PSBA and other interest groups the House would be able to move on something.

Yonisky said that there is no definitive answer to the pension debate, with both sides having strong opinions.

Other topics taken up at the meeting included the moratorium on school construction project funding; economic furloughing of teachers; reinstituting the mandated relief waiver system; liquor privatization; and basic education funding from the state.

Despite increases to education spending touted by some panel members, Ognosky said, “The numbers you’re batting around for basic education subsidies is not real.”