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