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Pa. lawmakers to scrutinize charters' cost to taxpayers

| Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, 11:58 p.m.

In North Hills School District, it costs taxpayers $10,336 a year to send a student to a charter school. A few miles south, Pittsburgh Public Schools would pay $12,871 a year — 25 percent more — to send a student to the same charter.

“There ought to be a standardized rate for it,” said David Hall, finance and operations director at North Hills. “I really don't think the full burden ought to fall on the local taxpayer, which it essentially does.”

The state Legislature is poised to address such concerns. The Senate Education Committee on Oct. 16 passed a proposal to change how districts calculate charter payments, increase accountability and set up a committee to scrutinize what it costs to run a charter.

Similar proposals have come and gone. Three times in the past three years, charter legislation failed to make it through both chambers.

This time, the debate is happening against the backdrop of a federal indictment against Nick Trombetta, founder of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. He stands accused of stealing $1 million from the charter through a network of shell companies.

Prosecutors indicted Trombetta in August.

“That has put a fire under both chambers to move more quickly on this,” said Bob Fayfich, executive director of Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

Across the state, districts annually pay charter schools a range of $6,405 per student in a Luzerne County district to up to $16,390 per student in a Montgomery County district, according to the state Department of Education. At issue is whether those payments match costs to run a charter, or allow charters to store surpluses.

Charter schools in Pennsylvania are a billion-dollar enterprise. Collectively, Pennsylvania's 500 school districts paid $1.18 billion to charters in the 2011-12 school year, according to state data. They received $49.3 million in state subsidies and $91.3 million from the federal government.

Pennsylvania has 180 charter schools, including 18 cybers.

Charter advocates agree that the funding formula needs to be updated.

“We have always been supportive of a funding commission to truly look at what the real costs are,” Fayfich said.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the Department of Education, said Gov. Tom Corbett's administration supports examining how charters are funded.

“It's a growing concern from the traditional public school,” Eller said. “The department sees and hears the concerns from the field, if you will, and it's obvious lawmakers hear the same.”

That includes tackling whether cyber charter schools should receive the same amounts as “bricks and mortar” charters. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, includes an automatic 5 percent deduction that schools could take from payments to cyber charter schools, which Fayfich opposes.

“We would like them to hold on to the 5 percent deduction until after the funding commission has completed its work based on a reality rather than arbitrary numbers,” Fayfich said.

As for long-term changes, the committee's findings would be due in August. Any recommendations would require legislative passage.

Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Mc-Keesport, supports finding “a level playing field” for all types of schools. He said he wants a cap on how much of a school district's budget can go to charter payments.

“How do we get a mix of charter and public schools where we don't break the bank, where we don't place any burden on the taxpayers?” Brewster said.

Hall wonders whether the Senate proposal would lead to more charter schools and more payments. One provision would allow colleges and universities to become charter authorizers.

“This is not doing anything to the benefit of public schools,” he said.

In the North Hills district, 83 resident students attend charter schools, mostly cyber charters. Special education students attend at a per pupil rate of $19,927, in addition to $10,336 for students not in special education — for a total of $1.2 million in annual payments borne by the district.

That's about 2 percent of the district's nearly $70 million budget, but Hall said there's no real savings to counterbalance the cost, other than textbooks or supplies.

“Until you have enough kids leave that you can reduce the number of classrooms you have, close the school, get rid of a counselor, get rid of a gym teacher, get rid of something, you don't have any costs go down,” Hall said.

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or

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