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Charter schools face unsure future

By   /   July 12, 2010  /   News  /   5 Comments

Facing rising costs and limited room for expansion, Alaska charter schools may soon be a thing of the past.

Mary Meade-Olberding, charter school supervisor for the Anchorage School District, said charter schools face a number of district-imposed restrictions that make expansion extremely difficult. With costs increasing steadily, however, many schools could have no choice but to expand or close their doors for good.

“As teacher salaries go up and as rent goes up and they can’t add more students, I don’t see how they’re even going to sustain themselves,” Meade-Olberding said.

Charter schools are classified as public schools, Meade-Olberding said, and receive the same level of State funding per student as traditional public schools. They are responsible for finding and paying rent on their own facilities, however, and do not benefit from district food services, transportation or special education resources.

While the extra costs cause an extra budgetary pinch, Meade-Olberding said the real problems arise when charter schools are faced with increasing rent payments and teachers’ union contracts.

“The rents run around a half a million per year for charter schools, it’s a huge chunk of your budget,” Meade-Olberding said. “You have to figure out staffing, because you have to use district teachers, and you have to pay union salaries and benefits and that’s also a huge cost.”

Accepting more students is often the only way a charter school could receive the funding necessary to survive. In a Catch-22 type twist, however, many schools are unable to afford to rent the classroom space for more students without the revenue generated by extra enrollment.

Furthermore, many landlords are unable or unwilling to spend the money necessary to bring a potential new charter school building up to code. Meade-Olberding said renovations often cost more than $1 million, and since charter schools usually request a three-year lease, landlords are often unwilling to make the brief yet expensive commitment.

“That’s the hold up: even if you have hundreds of more kids that want to come, you can only afford to pay rent on how many students you have,” Meade-Olberding said. “It’s a huge hassle.”

Aquarian Charter School is one of these schools. With a waiting list that nearly matches the student population, Principle Susan Forbes said funding is the only hurdle preventing another almost 350 students from attending the school.

“I would love to start an Aquarian 2.0 but there’s just not the money,” Forbes said. “We’re working for the enemy, these parents and children are leaving traditional programs and we’re taking the cream of the crop, so districts are not too crazy about us because we’re messing up their demographics.”

Forbes said the average wait for admission to Aquarian is three years, while many students never get in. Drastic expansions or a new facility altogether would be necessary to accommodate all the students on the waiting list, Forbes said, but the expansions would be impossible without the extra State funds generated by increased enrollment.

There are about 2,300 charter school students in Anchorage, with another 500 more on waiting lists for various programs.

“I think that more programs will open up and grow if there is more financial support, because it’s a huge headache to open a charter school,” Forbes said. “Nationally, I think schools of choice are very popular theoretically, but until there’s a requirement and money put towards facilities, it’s going to be a struggle.”

By Kirsten Adams


Kirsten formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

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  • Joel Adams

    Thank you for the well written piece. What an interesting situation for a service (education) provider (Anch. Sch. Dist.) to be in. Customers clamoring for the services of one of your businesses, but you can’t fulfill the need because of the employees of another. Sounds like a recipe for frustration, stagnation, and continuance of the status quo. I wonder what private enterprise would do? It certainly couldn’t survive the market with shenanigans such as those reported here. What a sham

  • http://na Susan Forbes

    I am quite surprised at the content and quotes in this piece. I would like to clarify my comments.

    I in no way stated that I am “working for the enemy”- meaning the local school district. I did however state that IF a district (any district) agrees to open too many charter, optional or alternative schools- these schools would be depleting many resources and supportive families from their neighborhood programs. I stated at that point these schools might be viewed as the enemy (as each program must be sustainable).

    In reference to the incorrect quote concerning “cream of the crop”, I stated that the best solution in my opinion, rather than expanding more charter and alternative schools that pull involved families from their neighbor schools, would be to continue to open and support more neighborhood magnet or school-within-a-school programs such as ASD’s language programs at Turnagain and Government Hill. I also mentioned that California has made progress in improving test scores in some of its toughest schools by using this approach. This would help resolve the issue of transportation, waitlists and schools of choice. I also said that our district has done a nice job offering more programs to meet individual needs.

    I mentioned that it would be an option for someone else (I emphasized that I was not at all interested in this task) to open an Aquarian ll to accommodate the waitlist – but until the issue of facility funding is addressed nationally it would be almost impossible to secure an affordable facility. This is the reality nationally, and Anchorage is no exception.

    I am concerned about the writer’s apparent attempt to highlight our brief phone conversation as a slam against our school district’s support for charter schools. The tone in which this is written is not accurate. The key is to work together with the local school district’s to meet the students/families needs and desires in a progressive educational setting. It is not a case of US against THEM as the writer insinuates.

  • Michael Murray

    The comment about the cream of the crop is true whether or not Ms. Forbes now says she meant to say it. Children of parents with means are able to leave neighborhoods for “better” schools across town, leaving their poorer neighbors with a declining school without neighbors to fight for their school and community. Newsweek ran an article last month that nearly 40% of charter schools do worse then schools on average in terms of student achievement. Couple this with increased costs (due to increased overhead) and increased environmental costs (more parents driving one child across town) and the loss of neighborhoods due to those that can fleeing and leaving behind those that can’t (or won’t because they want to support their neighborhood) and charter schools just don’t cut it. Go back to educating kids with their next door neighbors and improving all the schools for all the students not just for the Cream of the Crop.

  • Mary Meade-Olberding

    I would like to clarify that although I did say expansion of charter schools can be difficult, I DID NOT say it was due to “district-imposed restrictions.” The Anchorage School District and School Board have been very supportive of our local charter schools and other programs of choice. I encourage those of you who are interested in learning more about charter schools in Alaska to visit the Anchorage School District website–Section 333 of the School Board Policy and also the Alaska Dept. of Education and Early Development website and read the Alaska Statutes on Charter Schools.