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Charter school funding needs to be redesigned

Contrary to recent claims made by Peter Murphy of the New York Charter Schools Association, Superintendent James Williams and I have never attacked charter schools "as the primary culprit for the district's budget woes."

We are not anti-charter. Charters provide parents with a choice and they provide the district with competition that will make the district better.

We do have a serious problem, though, with the way charter schools are funded from school district budgets. Murphy unfortunately is unable to make this distinction.

We are not taking issue with the amount of money that charter schools receive. They receive the same per-pupil amount that the district spends, after subtracting costs the district pays from its budget on behalf of charter schools, such as transportation, special education and textbooks. The charter payment just shouldn't be funded out of the district's budget.

The district pays charter schools more than $10,000 per student per year. If district costs went down immediately by $10,000 for every student who transfers to a charter school, there would be no issue. The problem is that most of the district's costs are tied up in classrooms and buildings and other relatively fixed costs. We cannot eliminate them fast enough to offset the cost of the charter payments, which has grown dramatically and now exceeds $70 million a year.

One of the most painful and unpopular decisions a board of education must make is to close a school. Nevertheless, schools have closed in Buffalo, but it is still not enough to offset the increasing cost of charter payments. Simply stated, the cost of the charter payment is immediate but the cost savings are realized slowly, and thus the drain on the district's budget.

The State Education Department advised the Board of Regents that when the cost of charter payments made by a school district exceeds 5 percent of its budget, there is reason to be concerned, and when the cost exceeds 7.5 percent there should be significant concern. Buffalo's charter payments are about 10 percent now, so there is reason to be really concerned.

Charter schools are spending less than the district to educate students. I have never claimed otherwise. Charter schools have lower average teacher compensation than the district because charter teachers tend to have fewer years in teaching and therefore are lower on the pay scale. Charters also have lower pension costs as a result. Charter schools have little or no retiree health care cost, unlike the district. But charter schools are receiving a payment from the district that includes these costs that they do not incur.

It remains to be seen whether charters can continue to educate for less. I hope so. But even though they are educating for less now, that doesn't change the fact that charter payments are draining the district's budget.

Gary Crosby is chief financial officer of the Buffalo City School District.

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