School funding: only so much to go around
By Peter Jacklin
Last month’s Sentry front page article on the recent rejection by the Orange Unified Board of Trustees of a charter school application points to artful deception by the district to firm up its own “shaky finances.”
OUSD has had a recent history of denying charter schools. Many reasons have been given by the trustees, with different reasons for different cases. Most denials have been appealed successfully to the Orange County Department of Education. For the record, OUSD now has two charter schools that are considered successful by most unbiased observers.
I’m frank when I say that I did not have the opportunity to review the charter school’s application. For reasons unknown to me, these documents don’t often find their way into taxpayers’ hands. However, I saw the presentation made by the charter school management to the board late last year. After listening to half an hour of talking, I learned little. The presentation was filled with edu-speak, hyperbole and mysticism. I expressed my bafflement to my neighbors in the hall, and found that I was not alone. I hoped that the trustees understood and could find a solution that’s best for the students in the district.
Following that meeting, I had the opportunity to discuss the proposal with one of the trustees. The trustee expressed righteous concern that the proposal had major faults. One was the financial experience of the charter school’s management.
I was not surprised that the proposal was rejected. It may be a good decision. It’s likely to be overturned.
There are some other facts to consider about charter schools, the district and why the proposal was rejected.
First, 40 percent of the State of California budget MUST BE SPENT on education as decreed by initiative legislation.
Second, each student brings in about $8,000 per year to a school district. In total, that amounts to somewhere between $225 million and $250 million for OUSD – the district’s annual stash. This money has to be allocated to very specific purposes, by law, and generally covers salaries, operating expenses, and short- and long-term facilities maintenance. “The Lord gives …” (Job 1:21)
Next, it follows that larger school districts get a larger share of the budgetary pie. OUSD is a relatively small district, so its stash is smaller.
Additionally, a charter school in the district gets the same amount of funding for each student, and gets its funding from the district’s annual stash. This lessens the amount of money that goes to “regular” schools.
Charter schools do not report to district boards of education. The schools have their own boards and superintendents. For the most part, they have to operate in accordance with California education law. Charter schools require a renewal by the school boards every five years.
As I've mentioned in previous comments to the Sentry, enrollment in OUSD is declining and the district’s annual stash will be getting smaller each year. The forecast is for 2,000 fewer students in 2020 than five years earlier.
Finally, the district’s contribution to professional pensions is increasing significantly, yearly through 2020. This money comes out of OUSD’s annual stash and again reduces the funding for salaries, classroom expenses and maintenance. These expenses are mandated. “... And the Lord takes away.” (Job 1:21)
Considering these points, OUSD’s financial footing appears to be as shaky as that alleged for the charter school. It’s understandable that OUSD’s shakiness may be a sub rosa factor in rejecting this, and previous charter schools', proposals.
Of course, if the charter school’s appeal is won, and OUSD students transfer to it, OUSD sinks a bit deeper into the abyss the trustees’ decisions have been trying to prevent.
I ponder what decision is best for the students-at-large in California. Some charter schools are remarkably successful; others die rapid and miserable deaths. How many charter schools can exist in a school district without causing damage to a poorly functioning traditional state school system? Can charter schools serve every student in the district? What is the best balance of charter schools and “regular” schools? Many of us urge the OUSD trustees to find that balance. The current approach is leading the district to an uncertain future.