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03-06-03: It's never happened before
Three Auglaize County districts consider switching to charter schools

The Daily Standard

    An announcement that three local school districts may convert to charter schools has officials at the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) scrambling for answers.
    Minster school officials announced Monday that they, along with New Knoxville and New Bremen boards of education, are all considering becoming charter schools, also known as community schools. The switch would lead to more state funding for the schools, causing the districts to rely less on local property taxes.
    Charter schools originally were established to help turn around a poor school or academically-struggling school. But there are no regulations saying other districts, such as Minster, New Bremen and New Knoxville, can't become charter schools.
    The three Auglaize County schools are the first to suggest switching an entire school district to a charter school. And the move is being proposed just to gain more state funds, the local superintendents said.
    "This has not happened before," Steve Burigana, executive director of the Ohio Department of Education's Office of Community Schools, said. "I can say we don't have the funds for this purpose. We can't give any clear answers right now because we don't have clear answers. We will be checking into it."
    Along with gaining more state funds, charter schools also are exempt from some state regulations and must establish a governing board of community members. These guidelines were set up to help get a struggling school back on the right track.
    Minster Local Schools Superintendent Hal Belcher said the move is being discussed to address an "unfair" state funding system. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled last year the way the state funds schools is unconstitutional. State officials still have not addressed the problem and just announced cuts to state funding for all public schools.
    "Basically, we are being punished for performing well with the current system," New Knoxville Local Schools Superintendent Rod Russell said about the current state funding system.
    The state's school funding plan currently says a district must have $4,949 per pupil for education. That amount increases to $5,083 per pupil for next school year.
    The per pupil amount comes from state funding and each district's property taxes. Wealthy and high-achieving districts typically end up getting less state money and must rely more on local taxes.
    In Minster, residents currently pay 73 percent of the per pupil cost through local tax levies and only 27 percent comes from the state.
    But this would change if Minster became a charter school. Charter schools receive 100 percent state aid without any requirement of property tax revenue.
    "That is why the current system does not work," said 78th District State Rep. Derrick Seaver (D-Minster), who is a member of the state education committee.
    Under Ohio law, districts cannot assign students to attend charter schools and must operate traditional schools to ensure parents have options, Burigana said.
    Burigana said he feels the move is theoretical at this point.
    "First of all, a conversion to a charter school has to create a separate identity," Burigana said. "It doesn't allow the district to get rid of the responsibility. This concept is built on many assumptions, including that all the parents would send their children to the charter school."
    Seaver said the move may not be as difficult as Burigana suggests.
    "It is my understanding that they (the schools) can do this," he said. "This is one of the problems with the charter school issue. That was why I voted against House Bill 364 (the legislation that opened charter schools to all schools)."
    At the school board meeting Monday, Belcher said the school board would arrange for alternate education for those students who would not want to attend a charter school. But Belcher did not have a plan for how this would be done. The majority of the 31 parents at the special meeting were in favor of moving to a charter system.
    Seaver said the topic has not yet been discussed in the General Assembly, but he expects the recent news to force the legislature to address the situation.
    The state currently has 132 community schools, including several that are sponsored by ODE, Ohio Community School Center President Stephen Ramsey said.
    "I think this is a sign that we cannot allow charter schools to continue to be funded this way," Seaver said. "We need to focus on the public schools rather than the charter schools. We need to focus on this and find a way to fix the system."


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