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Editorial: When charter schools shut down, home districts deserve what’s owed

There may be valid reasons for the lack of accounting for the funds in the budgets of some of Buffalo’s defunct charter schools. But with hundreds of thousands of dollars – all public money – at issue, there’s some explaining to do.

The Buffalo News’ Jay Rey reported last week that Pinnacle Charter School, which closed in 2013, spent at least $1.7 million after shutting down. Charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded, are supposed to return assets to their home district after closing. No one with the Buffalo Public Schools knows what happened to the extra funds from Pinnacle.

Officials from Pinnacle say they have paid up, but the school district isn’t buying it. Surely some standard procedures would prevent this kind of dispute.

The Buffalo district says it also has not received any money from Community Charter School, which closed five years ago.

Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash pressed the issue during recent state budget hearings in Albany. Cash is asking for legislation that says when charters close, an independent receiver must be appointed to perform financial audits so that “public assets are protected and returned to the district of residence.”

A state law was passed in 2013 that directed closed charter schools to disburse their assets to the home districts of their students. Cash maintains there is little oversight to ensure that happens.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, said he spoke with State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia about financial accountability after a charter closing. She acknowledged the problem, said Ryan, who pointed out that the issue applies to closed charters across the state.

There is financial tension between public school districts, which have to make tuition payments for all students who attend charter schools, and the charters, which don’t get public funding for buildings and grounds.

To be sure, charter schools have a host of expenses associated with shutting down. Their dissolution plans, filed with each school’s authorizing body, should account for them.

The Buffalo Public Schools, approaching a new season of contract negotiations with the teachers union this summer, seeks revenue wherever it can find it.

If fiscal watchdogs are needed to see that school districts get what’s coming to them after a charter school disbands – or to ensure there are no disputes about what is owed – then the Legislature, the Board of Regents or Elia should take action.

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