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Attorney General's Office: No New Charter Schools Without Legislative Approval

Charter School by hdes.copeland.jpg
flikr Creative Commons / hdes.copeland

Last month New Hampshire Charter Schools in development got some very bad news: the board of education voted that they would no longer be approving new applications. Their reason: the state is all out of funding for such schools.

Charter school advocates blasted the decision, saying it made no sense, because the new schools would fall under next biennium’s budget. Wednesday the Attorney General’s office told lawmakers if they want to get money to those schools, they’ll have to change the laws.

A charter school is a public school that parents can choose to send their kids to that are administered outside of the traditional district structure. Charters often have specific missions, or themes: like art or science and math

Matt Southerton is the director for the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools, a group supporting public charter schools.He says the Board of Education’s decision reject all new applications for charter schools has been very tough on the 14 or so schools that are in the process of forming.

Southerton: Oh it’s devastating, they’re heartbroken.

These schools have been left in the lurch: not knowing whether to keep working on their applications on rumors that the so-called moratorium will be short lived, put them on ice until the next budget cycle, or give up altogether.

Southerton says schools-in-the-making need certainty going forward.

Southerton: I would like to see the groups that have gotten far enough along in the process to be conditionally approved, ok because then those groups can then all start getting their schools ready!

But Wednesday, two lawyers from the Attorney General’s office informed state lawmakers and an audience of charter school advocates that funding charter schools is more complicated than it seems.

Edwards: The budgetary laws, are very confusing. They’re very interconnected to each other.

Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards says back before 2011 the board of education could approve charter schools at will and the money for them came out of the general fund.

But last year the laws were changed, and education officials were required to estimate how much money the schools would need in the coming budget. And to get more funds they had to jump through some hoops.

Edwards: In order for the state board to spend more than 110 percent on charter schools it had to go to the fiscal committee and it had to go to governor and council to get approval to spend that money. And that is the change that makes all the difference.

Edwards said she would be happy to work with lawmakers in crafting a new law, but for now those are the rules.

Already the State Board of Education has to pay for 18 charter schools, and the eight newest additions put it in a $4.4 million dollar budget hole, according to board chairman Tom Raffio. Raffio says in order to approve all the schools that have applied, the fiscal committee would have to reach deep into the 2013 budget.

Raffio: They would have to approve, $14.4 million and that isn't going to happen.

Charter school advocates, like Matt Southerton, say that there are assumptions about enrollment numbers baked into any budget projection, and he thinks the Board of Education’s number is way too high.

He points out that in a letter from the House Education Committee to the Department of Ed, Committee Chairman Michael Balboni guesses there are only 4 schools that are ready to open, and they would only need an additional $1.8 million dollars to do so.

Southerton thinks that the Board of Education's decision isn't just about the money.

Southerton: I don’t know what to tell you, I mean it’s pretty obvious, it’s obvious something else is going on here.

But the board has been resolute in saying that this is not the case, and stands by its projections. Chairman Tom Raffio says the board conceptually approves of charter schools, and this is simply a decision about being fiscally responsible, but…

Raffio: but when the whole concept of charter school was starting we had always said that twenty would be a good benchmark, and when we hit twenty schools the state needs to take a step back and say, ok have charter schools been successful?

Raffio says, the board stands by its record, having approved 18 schools so far. But for the time being, any new schools will have to wait until the next budget cycle.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.

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