Delaware Public Media | by Megan Pauly
Christina School District officials feel they’ve been left out in the cold by the Dept. of Education regarding its potential changes to district funding allocations – changes Christina says could cost it $3 million.
State education officials say there won’t be any changes in the state’s student funding formula this year, but Christina School District officials are still concerned.
The state’s Education Secretary can’t change the formula that decides how much goes to charter schools, but can determine which line items are “inappropriate for inclusion” in a district’s operating budget, and which aren’t. That can affect how much districts send to charters that serve their students.
Christina officials held a briefing for legislators Wednesday in response to mixed messages on social media about the issue.
Christina Acting Superintendent Dr. Robert Andrzejewski says he sees one major red flag for his district.
“The issue is excluded funds, restricted funds: funds that districts can set aside for certain purposes that just don’t go into the general operating pot of money, and that’s the pot of money – the general operating pot – that the charter schools draw the local cost per pupil out of,” Andrzejewski said.
Andrzejewski says line items historically considered restricted funds for the district may now be included. This includes local grants and donations designated for a specific program or purpose, and funding from other agencies like the Division of Health and Social Services to help manage the Parents as Teachers program.
He adds Christina has excluded these items for years, but the Dept. of Education called for an examination of districts’ inclusions and exclusions in April.
Andrzejewski says he was initially made aware of DOE’s intentions in April, but it wasn’t until August that he and district officials started to raise concerns.
“The bills came out with a different calculation which kind of surprised all of us,” he said. “It’s a communication breakdown between the DOE and business administrators across the state.”
A timeline presented by Christina Chief Financial Officer Bob Silber showed that on August 15th, DOE informed district Business Managers that “once the bills are released, Business Managers may contact DOE for district specific exclusions.”
On August 16th, DOE sent notification that the Charter Bills had been finalized. A day later, Andrzejewski contacted the Secretary of Education expressing concern about the impact of the changes – increasing his district’s cost by approximately $3 million.
Ed. Secretary Steven Godowsky responded he would look into the situation and set up a meeting. A meeting with some superintendents, including Andrzejwsk, was initially scheduled for the 31st, but was canceled by DOE after allegations that the changes would force districts to send more money to charter schools popped up on social media the weekend prior. The meeting hasn’t been rescheduled.
Christina CFO Bob Silber says the initial timing of the scheduled meeting – the day before the changes needed to be finalized – was suspicious.
And the fact that no business managers were invited added to the frustration that DOE’s changes to how certain funds can be allocated could be permanent.
Silber adds Christina isn’t the only district that has had difficulty communicating with DOE on this. He says charter schools are frustrated, too.
“They call me and they ask: can you explain to me what’s in this category of district specific exclusions. I refer them back to the Department of Education,” he said. “They get frustrated with that because the Department of Education in the past has said to them, well you need to ask the district.”
Silber says the potential re-allocation of funds was a topic of a September 1 meeting for all Superintendents but that it wasn’t addressed in detail.
Brian Stephan has two children in the district and serves on Christina’s citizens budget oversight committee. He doesn’t think parents have had enough time to grasp what this change could mean for their kids.
“It was seemingly a last minute last turn that came out of nowhere,” Stephan said. “There was really no explanation, it was just from DOE: here’s what we’re changing and that’s it.”
State Rep. John Kowalko was among the lawmakers at Wednesday’s meeting. He says he’s disappointed with DOE’s handling of the situation.
“I’ve asked Secretary Godowsky to confirm to me the dates that meetings took place, who was in attendance, who was not in attendance,” Kowalko said. “I have to know that because it’s my right to know that. Newark Charter School is in my district – entirely my district – and my district is entirely composed of the Christina School District.”
Kowalko intends to press for a reason for the change, while addressing how the situation will be rectified without penalizing students.
Meanwhile Christina CFO Bob Silber says no funds will be spent by the district until the situation is resolved.
“If you think about your own personal life – if you received a bill from a vendor and you disagreed with the bill: would you pay the bill and go, that’s ok we’ll work it out, or would you say: no, let’s work it out first,” Silber said. “And that’s the position the Christina School District is going to take.”
Christina officials have yet to hear back from DOE. When Delaware Public Media asked about the situation just over a week ago, DOE offered a statement saying it’s looking at discrepancies from district to district in what types of spending have been allowed as exclusions and are working to bring consistency back into the formula. The statement also indicated no changes will be made for this school year.
DOE also shared a letter sent to state senators and representatives Wednesday. In the letter, Godowsky states that the department will place a “hold” status on all school district approved exclusions submitted for the 2015-16 school year and will not make any changes to district requested exclusions this year. However, he says he plans to continue to address inconsistencies in approved exclusions list across districts.