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Hempstead official supports charters, but not 'at the detriment' of public schools

Regina Armstrong, acting superintendent of Hempstead schools, said

Regina Armstrong, acting superintendent of Hempstead schools, said the district is trying to figure out "a way in which we can get more moneys in terms of supporting the charter schools so it doesn't affect what we can do here in the public schools." Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Charter schools in Hempstead are booming, but it is coming at a cost to the public school system, which says it may face more staff and program cuts in 2020-21 unless the state comes up with $11 million extra in aid.

The public district must pay the tuition for charter school students, and says that will lead to a shortfall in its next budget.

Hempstead has become an extreme example of the charter school movement taking off, with about 2,000 students now enrolled, compared to 7,300 in the public system, officials said.

“I support charters. I support public schools. But not when it is at the detriment of the public schools,” said Regina Armstrong, acting superintendent of the Hempstead public school district. “So, we are just trying to figure out a way in which we can get more moneys in terms of supporting the charter schools so it doesn’t affect what we can do here in the public schools.”

Jack Bierwirth, a state-appointed adviser to the long-troubled district who is working to turn it around, said the charter school movement has expanded in Hempstead far beyond that in most districts.

“I think when the charter school funding formulas were set up, no one quite envisioned a situation like this where the numbers became this extreme,” he said.

“This is not to beat up on the charter schools. I think it is to the benefit of students in this community to have vibrant charter schools that are trying to provide a good education and vibrant regular public schools that are focused on doing a better job than they have historically,” he said. But “having those entities fight with each other over inadequate resources isn’t really going to help anybody.”

Hempstead says its charter school tuition reimbursement and related transportation costs consistently have grown: $26 million two years ago, $44 million this coming academic year, and a projected $55 million for 2020-21. The overall school budget for this year is $221.5 million.

Hempstead officials said the budget crunch is coming just as the district is showing signs of advancement. Graduation and test scores are up, and previously cut programs such as art and music in the elementary schools have been restored, Armstrong said.

“We are finally starting to make progress,” Armstrong said. “We want to be able to sustain that.”

But the growing bill to pay charter school tuition forced the district to cut 100 jobs last spring, including teachers, teaching assistants, security and other support staff, she said. The district also had to cut back on programs such as BOCES.

The district must pay about $20,000 in tuition per year for each Hempstead child whose parents enroll them in a charter school, officials said. That does not include other costs such as transportation. Any child is eligible to enroll in a charter at any time. The state sets the caps on how many students can attend each charter.

The cost of a general education student in the Hempstead public system is about $14,000 a year, Armstrong and Bierwirth said.

District officials say the solution to the budget gap is simple: more state aid through a special grant, or a change in the state formula for how school districts are reimbursed for charter school tuition.

“The district is getting more and more squeezed, and this is a district … that has had problems for decades and has a lot of catching up to do,” Bierwirth said.

The State Education Department, in a statement Thursday, said: "For several years, the department has been concerned with the fiscal, operational and governance issues in this district. Through the work of the distinguished educator [Bierwirth] in the last year, the department has worked closely with the district to address some of those fiscal challenges by creating a financial plan to help meet the needs of its students," spokesperson JP O'Hare said. "However, more work needs to be done, and the department remains committed to continuing this work to ensure that students in Hempstead receive the education they deserve."

The local charter schools have grown steadily: The number of students at the K-12 Academy Charter School has more than doubled since 2016, from 675 to nearly 1,400 projected for this fall, Hempstead district officials said.

At the K-8 Evergreen Charter School, the numbers jumped from 367 to 510. Officials at both schools did not return calls for comment.

A third school, which also educates some Hempstead students, Roosevelt Children’s Academy, has remained at about 255 students in K-8.

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