School districts bleeding money to cyber charter schools

As the end of the school year passes, students are beginning to enjoy summer vacation, but for district administrators this time of year brings with it dealing with ever-increasing budget expenses and resulting deficits.

Although wages and retirement benefits are often listed as the drivers of these deficits, one expense that all districts in the area face is the increase in cyber charter school funding which in some cases equals or exceeds the amount of their district’s deficits.

According to the state charter school law, “there shall be no tuition charge for a resident or non-resident student attending a charter school.”

So who does pay?

“The law allowed them to go to an individual school board and ask them to open a charter in that district,” said Dr. Timothy Bowers, district superintendent for the Williamsport Area School District. “If a board said ‘yes,’ then the theory was that they could open a charter within that district. Well, then charters started thinking why don’t we just open it up to everyone and do it online. So then that bred that whole concept of cyber charter schools. So now you can be a charter anywhere.”

“Cyber charter schools will tell you it’s free, but it’s not,” he added.

According to the law, the school district in which the student resides must pay for the student to attend a cyber charter school. These costs can range from around $11,000 to as much as $48,000 per student depending on the district and the type of education needed, either regular or special education. For some districts this can total over a million dollars a year in cyber charter school funding.

For the 2018-19 school year, the most recent year for which figures were available, the amount Lycoming County’s eight public school districts paid to cyber charter schools collectively came in at more than $5.5 million, according to numbers provided by the districts (See chart on Page A1.)

“There’s still tuition. They take that directly from our coffers. We have to pay for it,” Timothy Bowers said. “It’s definitely a loophole.”

“They made special exceptions for whatever reason,” according to Dr. Jill Wenrich, Jersey Shore Area School District superintendent. “The whole thing with the cyber charters is, brick and mortar if they’re 10 miles within your border then they’re able to take students from you, but cyber charter, they’re main office doesn’t need to be within 10 miles of your border. They can take students from wherever they want to across Pennsylvania.”

Daphne Bowers, superintendent for Montgomery Area School District agrees. “It was tied to a piece of legislation that went through and I don’t know if anyone realized what was going to happen as a result of it, but now they’re so strong because they’re so wealthy,” she said. “When any kind of reform or a bill comes across, they have lobbyists who are able to make sure it doesn’t go through.”

“It’s hard to look at these numbers and understand how big they really are in my budget, “ said Daphne Bowers. “If you look at last year, almost $300,000 in my budget went out to cyber education. When you compare that to what a mill is worth in my district, that is 1.5 mills. We can only raise taxes to an index. I can’t even raise enough taxes in a school year to cover just that. Because of this, districts are faced with cutting back on programs, teachers or even closing schools.”

For the last two years, Jersey Shore Area School District has been dealing with the issue of how to balance a budget and remain solvent without doing just that.

“You saw what we went through last year,” Wenrich said. “That’s the only option, because how are you going to stay solvent. You can’t because you’re always putting out more than you’re taking in. Honestly, I believe, myself and the school board, we don’t mind that there’s an index that we can only go up to so much, because we know that the local taxpayer is doing all they can to help fund the system, but it’s a Catch 22, like Daphne said, we really should be taxing above the index, but we know that our community can’t afford it.”

Cyber charter schools also do not have to deal with the cost of maintaining facilities and much of the overhead costs that districts do. That, however, is not taken into account when the cost of educating a student in the cyber school setting is calculated.

“Not to mention those budget numbers that drive the figures. That takes into account brick and mortar, so when we look at our budget, we have to plan on facilities, so of course those numbers will be much higher than a cyber program,” Timothy Bowers said.

“But as each child goes an amount goes with them and it doesn’t necessarily equate to us being able to diminish a whole a class which doesn’t require a teacher. We’re still required to have a teacher for the other students that are there, so there is no relief,” Wenrich added.