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Charter schools would hurt county, supt. says

A bill that would allow the creation of charter schools paid for by tax dollars could still be passed by the Kentucky General Assembly, and if it is, it could cause major damage to the financing of public schools in Letcher County, the county school superintendent said.

The bill, which calls the schools “public charter schools,” would allow for “teachers, parents, school administrators, community residents, public organizations, nonprofit organizations, or a combination thereof ” to request that a local school board, or the mayor in Lexington and Louisville, to authorize creation of an unlimited number of charter schools in their district.

The Charter Schools Bill is one of many moving through the Kentucky General Assembly that would make sweeping changes in education in the state. March 15 was the last day legislators could vote on the bill in Frankfort. The U.S. Education Secretary Nancy DeVos has also taken a public position supporting charter schools.

Tony Sergent, superintendent of Letcher County Public Schools, shook his head as he looked at the ever-growing list of proposals at the state and federal levels affecting education.

“It’s like every legislator had his own bill,” Sergent said.

Many of those have received little attention as the Kentucky School Board Association and local school officials have tried to stave off the biggest bills. Sergent said if a charter school were to be formed in Letcher County, it would take away students and state funding.

“If you add a charter school, the funding goes with the student,” Sergent said. “That would be like adding another school.”

The district receives approximately $3,900 per student from the state, Sergent said. Under that formula, the district would $390,000 in state money to a charter school with only 100 students, plus an undetermined amount of money in transportation and federal special education funds. The district already lost $477,000 in coal severance tax money that was budgeted for this year, and had to replace it with reserve funds, Sergent said. That money will have to be cut from the budget next year.

“To keep taking hits in funding, it just keeps getting harder and harder (to keep schools open)” Sergent said.

The Letcher County Public School District now has fewer than 3,100 students spread out over nine schools. Four schools have fewer than 250 students, and Arlie Boggs Elementary, the only Letcher County school South of Pine Mountain, has an enrollment of only 125. Several schools have closed in the last few years because of declining enrollment, and Sergent said charter schools would only make the financial situation worse. While he could not say for certain that it would cause school closures, he said it would take money away that would otherwise be used for schools already in the district.

“What is the ultimate goal of charter schools? Is it to eliminate public schools?” Sergent asked. “We’re losing students every year, and when you do, you lose funding.”

Jenkins Independent Schools has an enrollment of 471 students in two buildings. Burdine Elementary houses 226 students in preschool through fifth grade. Jenkins Middle and High School total 245 students, with 143 of those in grades 9-12.

Superintendent Mike Genton could not be reached for comment on the bill.

The bill would allow school districts to “voluntarily” transport students to the charter schools, however if school districts chose not to transport students, state transportation money would be taken way from the local district and given to the charter school to arrange its own transportation.

A charter school could either find a building of its own, or negotiate with the local school board for a building. If a local school board provides a building to a charter school, it must provide it “at cost.”

Charter schools would be run by independent boards of directors elected by parents and would be exempt from many state school regulations and laws. They would have to meet or exceed state performance standards for other schools.

Local boards of education would have oversight authority, but charter schools could appeal their decisions to the state. Charter schools would also be “exempt to the same extent as other public schools from all taxation, fees, assessments, or special ad valorem levies on its earnings and its property.”

Critics of charter schools say the schools pick the best and brightest students, leaving lower performing students and special needs children at public schools. House Bill 520 says any student can apply for a charter school placement, and if there is overcrowding, students will be chosen by random lottery.

“Let’s say they do take kid, charter schools can also dismiss them,” Sergent said. “You can accept any kid, but if you can dismiss them if they don’t meet their goals, they go back to public schools. They’re not picking the best on the front end, but they are on the back end.”

The bill also allows for the creation of single-sex schools, but federal laws allow such schools only if schools offering comparable programming are available for both sexes, meaning a single charter school that accepted only boys could not exist within a school district under federal law.

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