A routine meeting to review Metro Nashville Public Schools’ nearly $765 million budget proposal for next school year Monday afternoon broke into a makeshift policy meeting about the financial effect of opening more charter schools.
About a third of a $44 million budget increase that Director of Schools Jesse Register is asking the Metro school board to approve is directly attributed to the district’s growing charter school community.
“What comes to mind for me, just from a fiscal perspective, is a strong potential for a tax increase,” said Amy Frogge, a school board member.
“This is a huge jump, $15 million, just for the schools we’ve already approved, and we don’t know what the state’s going to send our way. And if we’re paying two-thirds of those costs, where’s that money going to come from?” she asked.
The budget proposal includes $14.8 million for charter school costs, including the price tag to open five schools slated for fall 2013, add new grade levels at existing charter schools and cover expected increases in the per-pupil funding cost.
The cost for charter-related expenses gave members of the school board pause at their Budget and Finance Committee meeting as talk about the cost of charter schools intersected with the latest version of legislation on Capitol Hill that would give the state power to approve charter schools the district would have to pay for.
Following a messy fight between the district and the state over MNPS’ high-profile rejection of a charter school proposal, House Speaker Beth Harwell is spearheading legislation that would allow a state panel to approve the applications of quality charter schools the districts refused.
While board members said the legislation is “a step in the right direction” from a more restrictive bill that targeted only Nashville and Memphis, board member Will Pinkston said he still has concerns the plan lacks the “guardrails” to keep the districts from falling off its own “fiscal cliff.”
“I think this has a lot of fiscal risk,” Pinkston said. “I just feel like we owe it to taxpayers and students’ families just to raise our hand in the process and say, ‘Can we get some fiscal assurances here?’ ”
The proposed legislation would create an independent state body to consider charter school applications rejected by the local school district. If the body decides to open the charter, the school district would be responsible for the cost to fund the school, although the state would be charged with the charter’s oversight.
Charter schools are privately run, publicly funded schools that can operate without the strings attached to traditional charter schools. For example, charter schools can exercise a longer school day, a year-round school year or exercise different management models. Charter schools that are failing are also much easier to close.
Charter schools are a piece of the ongoing education reform movement to give parents more choice. In addition to giving the state more power to approve charter schools, lawmakers are also considering giving low-income students state tax-dollars to cover their private school tuition.
With 10 charter schools lined up to apply to open schools in the district later this spring and the ongoing momentum of the charter school movement in Nashville, board member Elissa Kim said it’s time the district revamp how it looks at funding education in traditional and charter schools. Board Chairwoman Cheryl Mayes agreed, adding the district and board are typically more reactive and need to think proactive going forward.
The proposed $44 million budget increase also includes step salary raises and a 1.5 percent pay boost for certificate and support staff, additional teachers to compensate for student growth, and several new or expanded programs.
The district’s Budget and Finance Committee is scheduled to meet again Tuesday, March 11, to review the budget proposal again.