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Officials: Hempstead district to pay over $43M in charter tuition next year

School district officials say the cost is too much and could force them to scuttle plans to add a number of programs and services for the 2019-2020 school year.

Acting District Superintendent Regina Armstrong at the Hempstead

Acting District Superintendent Regina Armstrong at the Hempstead school board meeting on Thursday February 14, 2019. Photo Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The Hempstead school district is expecting to pay nearly $43.4 million in tuition to charter schools next year, as the number of students choosing to attend the institutions continues to rise, administrators said Thursday night.

District officials were in the process of putting together their proposed budget for the 2019-20 school year, but the increase in the number of students attending charter schools “throws everything back to square one,” said Jack Bierwirth, a state-appointed special adviser to the district, at the board's regular meeting.

The board was looking to add a number of programs and services next year, but “I question whether we can even afford what we have now,” said Bierwirth, who was appointed to the position of “Distinguished Educator” in September 2017 by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

The number of Hempstead students attending three local charter schools — Academy Charter, Evergreen Charter and Roosevelt Children’s Academy — is projected to increase by about 22 percent, from approximately 1,769 this school year to 2,155 in 2019-20, according to data presented at the meeting. And that’s after a nearly 26 percent increase this year.
Students attending the two Hempstead-based charters and the one in Roosevelt totaled 1,405 in the 2017-18 school year, according to district data.
Local districts pay the tuition for students to go to charter schools, which are public schools created by parents, educators and community leaders and authorized by the state. The tuition is based on a formula set in state statute and students are chosen by lottery.
Students leaving for charter schools  could impact the nearly 8,000-student district in a number of ways, education experts said.
Districts typically pay charter school tuition out of their state aid or through local revenues, said Andrew Van Alstyne, deputy director of education and research for the Association of School Business Officials of New York. The districts also must pay for transportation, textbooks, software and staffing school nurses, he said.
The costs negatively affect budgets, Van Alstyne said, because the districts "have fixed costs and use economies of scale."
Losing students also reduces class sizes, said Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium. “Meanwhile the fixed expenses are basically unchanged for the district.”
Hempstead paid $25.9 million in tuition to charter schools for the 2017-18 school year, and is expected to pay $34.3 million this year, according to district data.
That amount is expected to increase by more than 26 percent for the 2019-20 school year, going up to nearly $43.4 million, according to district data.

 This is a “major challenge,” said Ed Cullen, a consultant working with the district who was assistant superintendent for business in the Baldwin school district before he retired. "The district needs relief in terms of charter school expenses. One might call this an unfunded mandate,” Cullen said. 
The increase in students attending charters is attributed to a number of factors, including the Academy Charter School adding more grades.
More than 770 Hempstead students attended Academy Charter in the 2017-18 school year, 1,100 are estimated to be in attendance this year and 1,390 are projected for 2019-20, according to district data. This year’s enrollment has not yet been finalized.
The Academy opened in fall 2009 and now has 1,352 students in kindergarten through 11th grade — approximately 85 percent of whom are from the Hempstead district, according to data provided by the charter school. Next year it plans to add 12th grade and expects to have 1,639 students in grades K-12, charter officials said.
 The Academy has an elementary, middle and high school on North Franklin Street in Hempstead, and this fall opened an elementary school for grades K-2 in Uniondale.
“We’re growing,” said Wayne Haughton, the Academy's executive director. He declined to comment on the increase in tuition dollars the growth means for the district. 
The Academy also saw an increase of about 100 kindergartners after Hempstead’s Prospect School was rendered unusable due to an Aug. 7 fire caused by a lightning strike, and damage from water used by firefighters. The district is leasing the St. Catherine of Sienna  School in Franklin Square from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, where the approximately 600 kindergarten and pre-K students will remain through the end of the school year.
Some parents were concerned about having to drive farther, and having their students start the school year a few days late, so they instead opted to send their students to Academy, Haughton said.
The district receives charter school transitional aid from the state. It is receiving $3.2 million this year and is projected to receive $1.6 million in 2019-20, according to district data. The amount may change depending on what is finalized in the state budget. The district also receives some reimbursement from the state for transportation, district officials said. 
 Members of the board Thursday discussed reaching out to state and local lawmakers for additional help. 

Acting District Superintendent Regina Armstrong agreed, but said the district also needs to work with the charter schools as one community.

"Somehow, some way, the charters, the public school system, we're going to have to work together [and] solicit more funds so all of our students in this community can get a fair education."

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