Lawmakers override state code to let charter schools keep extra bus funds

Delaware State News | by Matt Bittle

DOVER — Every year, Delaware allocates millions of dollars to help charter schools pay for the cost of busing students. According to state law, all Delaware schools are suppose to return any unused funding, but in each of the past seven fiscal years, a special provision included in the budget has allowed charters to keep excess allowances.

This year, the Department of Education spent a total of $10.7 million providing funding to the state’s 27 charter schools, but the schools themselves spent only $9.3 million on bus contracts, leaving $1.4 million available for a variety of educational functions, according to financial data from the state.

“Any leftover money does go to pay for educational opportunities,” said Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, a support organization. “In some case that would be a … paraprofessional, in some cases that could mean an extra teacher, that could mean an extra reading specialist.”

Proponents of allowing charter schools to keep leftover funds say the policy motivates the schools to negotiate a better deal with bus contractors. Those supporters include Gov. Jack Markell.

“By allowing charter schools to keep any funds left over when they negotiate transportation contracts, but requiring them to spend those leftover funds for educational purposes, the epilogue language incentivizes charter schools to control transportation costs while benefiting the classroom,” Jonathon Dworkin, a spokesman for Gov. Markell, said.

But the subject is a highly divisive one that has flared up in Legislative Hall before and looks like it will do so again.

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, led an unsuccessful push to amend the provision out of the budget last year, which played a role in creating some temporary hard feelings among members of the House Democratic caucus. He has plans to introduce a similar amendment this year and believes voting against it would be “an embarrassment.”

“We can have absolutely no accountability to our taxpayers as long as we don’t enforce the law that exists,” he said.

While Rep. Kowalko is skeptical of charter schools and how they use leftover transportation funding, it’s the fact lawmakers are specifically overriding state law that bothers him the most. The budget includes hundreds of provisions, known as epilogue language, that spell out in greater details how funds are to be spent. In the case of charter school busing, legislators added language stating “If the actual negotiated or bid costs are lower than the maximum rate specified above, the charter school may keep the difference for educational purposes.”

That portion of text did not originally require the funds be spent strictly on education — the last three words were added two years ago.

Rep. Kimberly Williams, D-Newport, voted for Rep. Kowalko’s amendment last year and wants to see it succeed this year, although she is pessimistic about the likelihood.

“For me, are they cutting back on bus routes for children or are they reducing the services provided to the kids?” she questioned.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, a member of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, supports letting charter schools keep leftover funds, saying the state “seriously underfund(s) our charters.”

“It’s not explicitly prohibited if the epilogue language modifies the Delaware Code. So there’s no prohibition because of the epilogue language,” he said. “I mean, it’s not unusual to do that with epilogue.”

Charter funding is based on what the districts are given — the charters are apportioned 70 percent of what each county vocational district receives on a per-student basis.

This year, the six Kent County charter schools were earmarked $875.84 per student, totaling about $1.55 million.

Not every Delaware charter had a surplus. Odyssey Charter School, in Wilmington, retained about $245,000, while First State Military Academy, in Clayton, was approximately $87,000 in the red.

Positive Outcomes, which used the Caesar Rodney School District’s buses, is the only charter school in the state that did not receive funding.

Ms. Massett is in favor of changing state law to allow every Delaware school to hold on to excess funding and use it for educational initiatives.

“One idea behind charters is find best practices and share with counterparts,” she said. “This is one.”

The epilogue language was removed from the budget in 2014 and then inserted into the grant-in-aid bill. It was placed back in the budget bill last year and is included in a draft version this year.

Despite the support from lawmakers and assurances from charter school supporters, skeptics remain.

“I don’t want groups spending money just because they have it,” Rep. Williams said. “If we’re offering money for a particular service, I want them to get good service at the best price but I don’t want them spending money for the sake of spending it either. It’s not our pocketbook. It’s the people’s purse, and we should be conscious of how we’re spending the people’s money.”

Ms. Massett counters that charter attendees are considered public-school students, meaning they are the children of taxpayers and deserve to benefit from state funds, which, she said, go “straight into the classroom.”

“It’s going toward what taxpayers wanted to it go toward,” she said of the leftover transportation funds.

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