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Many Alle-Kiski school districts challenge private charter, cyber schools

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By R.A. Monti
Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Many Alle-Kiski school districts are tired of footing the bill for students who decide to go to private charter and cyber schools, so they're fighting back.

During the last few years, many districts have started their own online schools to try to keep many of their students in the district and lure back some who left.

Districts are required to pay tuition for students who leave the district to go to a private charter school, and that can be expensive.

“Sending a kid to a private charter school costs us between $9,000 and $10,000 a year,” said Matt Connor, Burrell School District's assistant superintendent. “That's even higher for a special education student.

“For a kid who goes to our cyber school it only costs us between $250 and $300, plus another fee for a laptop,” he said.

Burrell's cyber school is run in conjunction with the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit's e-academy, something Connor thinks gives his students an advantage over students who choose to go to a private charter school.

“Because so many districts are partners in the e-academy, a student has a wider variety of scheduling options,” he said. “The curriculum has not only been created by us, but also Penn-Trafford, Norwin, Hempfield and others.

“Whatever school has the course a student wants, or needs, they can choose it.”

Connor said 13 students choose the district's cyber school, while about 30 others still go to private charter schools. The school is making progress, though, before Burrell created their school three years ago, about 40 students left the district for private charter schools.

Since the state Legislature approved charter schools in 1997, 175 have opened statewide. Sixteen are online only.

“Charter schools are a game-changer, no doubt,” said Joseph Domaracki, interim associate dean of the College of Educational Technology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “Public schools have to do more to maintain their population.

“It's a reality,” he said.

During the 2008-09 school year, South Butler County School District had 93 students leave the district to go to a private charter school. This year, two years after the district created its own cyber school, that number has fallen to 73 students,

“We try to steer students into (the district's cyber school) and have done it with some success,” Superintendent Dale Lumley said.

Still, this year alone, the district has had to pay $535,000 in tuition for students who left the district to go to a private charter school. That's more money than the district can raise by increasing property taxes under the state imposed inflation index.

Kiski Area pays about $1 million in tuition for 106 students to go to out of district charter schools this year, but the situation has improved from five years ago when the district lost 177 students.

“The bleeding stopped” when the district created its own cyber school, Superintendent John Meighan said. “I think we really slowed down the number of new charter school enrollees.”

Other benefits

There are more benefits to having a district-run cyber school than saving money, administrators said.

“I can verify the curriculum,” Burrell's Connor said. “Many of the students who leave for cyber and charter schools come back.

“When they come back from our cyber school, they're on the same page as the other students,” he said. “They're better prepared to return to school.”

Highlands's cyber school is entirely created by Highlands and taught by district teachers, something spokeswoman Misty Chybrzynski said benefits students. “That makes us different from other districts,” she said. “It allows the kids to stay in our community.”

R.A. Monti is a freelance reporter for Trib Total Media. Staff reporters Brian Rittmeyer and Daveen Rae Kurutz contributed to this story.

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