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03-04-03: Area schools may have found way to add funds, cut taxes
The Daily Standard

    MINSTER - Three local school districts have found a legal loophole that could increase state funding at each school and reduce local property taxes.
    About 30 residents attended a special school board meeting in the Minster High School library Monday to discuss the possibility of converting Minster to a community school, which is more commonly referred to as a charter school. Deb Munis and Ron Pepple from the Auglaize County Educational Service Center delivered a two-hour presentation and said New Bremen and New Knoxville schools also are looking at this option.
    Charter schools are exempt from some state guidelines and would be fully funded from the state, Munis told the audience.
    School districts throughout Ohio must come up with $5,083 per student to fund each child's education at minimum state standards. A portion of that money comes from the state and the rest comes from the school district through local taxes.
    Minster currently provides about $3,477 in property taxes per student, with0 the state providing the other $1,606. By switching to a charter school, funding would be entirely provided by the state, Munis said.
    "State law says that schools can switch over any or all parts of their school district (to a charter school). There is nothing to stop them from doing it," Ohio Community School Center President Stephen Ramsey said this morning.
    Munis said in her presentation Monday night the school district would need to apply with the state to become a charter school after making a contract that would meet state criteria. Criteria for charter schools are more lax than public schools, and Minster already would meet all criteria, Superintendent Hal Belcher said.
    A charter school has to have a five-member governing board appointed by the school's board of education. The power of the governing board is established in a contract signed by the board of education and the governing board. The school board can drop the contract at any time, according to state law.
    "The Minster school board would still keep all control," Pepple said. "Basically, it could be set up so that any person could walk into the school and not realize the difference. There is major money out there to be had. This is something you have to decide on as a community."
    Charter school options were approved by the state legislature in 1997 and took effect in the 1998-1999 school year. They were originally set up to offer other options to parents of students in school districts that were not performing well academically. The nearest example of a charter school is in Elida, where an electronic school contracts with the local school board.
    No school district in the state has attempted to switch its entire curriculum to a charter school, such as what Minster, New Bremen and New Knoxville are proposing. According to the Alaska Department of Education Web site, school districts there took advantage of the same scenario in 1998, a move that eventually put the state in bankruptcy.
    "The way the system works out, it is more equitable for richer school districts that provide more of their own money," Pepple said, because richer districts could decrease the amount of local taxes by becoming a charter school. "Minster and New Bremen would benefit more than Waynsefield-Goshen, for example."
    According to charter school funding formulas, Minster would see a 52 percent increase in state funding for the 2003-2004 school. Increases in state funding would be 42 percent in New Bremen and about 25 percent in New Knoxville.
    "I think this is a great opportunity to make the school money," Belcher said. "I think this shows that the state needs to equalize formulas for school funding. If this would do that, it would be worth trying alone. If there wasn't the funding problem that there is, we wouldn't be doing this."
    "I think the legislature knew that this loophole was there," New Knoxville Superintendent Rod Russell said. "I just don't think that they thought anyone would take it this far."
    Russell said the New Knoxville school board has been waiting on the outcome of the Minster board meeting and has not yet had an official discussion on the move.
    New Bremen Local Schools Superintendent Larry Smith said school funding is unfair and that becoming a charter school could be a way of taking advantage of the situation.
    Belcher said the school board still needs the 6.5-mill operating levy that is on the May election ballot. He said the taxes would not have to be collected if the school would not need that money.
    "Community school regulations are constantly changing," Belcher said. "It could change to where it was no longer economically feasible to go this route. We need to have that (the levy) in place just in case. If we pass it, we wouldn't have to collect it. A school levy just says that you can collect up to that much."
    Superintendents from each of the school districts said that they would use the move to lower property taxes rather than hoard more money for the school district.
    No official action was taken by the Minster board, but Belcher said the possibility would be discussed at the regular meeting March 11. Applications for charter schools must be submitted by April 6 to qualify for the 2003-2004 school year.


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