Charter school advocates ready to make case for new Nashua schoolBy PAUL FEELY
New Hampshire Union Leader
May 17. 2014 11:25PM
A group seeking to open New Hampshire's 23rd charter school expects to go before the state's Board of Education next month to seek approval.
If it opens, it would become part of a field of educational institutions that have a "bright" future, according to one top state official.
The founders of a K-8 MicroSociety Academy Charter School, who hope to open somewhere in the Nashua area, will make their case in the wake of an appointment to the state board that raised the ire of charter school advocates and Republicans.
Public education activist Bill Duncan's appointment to the Board of Education on May 8 was met with concern over how it could potentially affect future charter school applications and funding requests.
Duncan, a New Castle resident, is a strong advocate for the public school system. He testified before the House Ways and Means Committee in January 2012, on what he described as an assault on public education by the Legislature, and started the website "Defending Public Education in New Hampshire" in the fall of 2011. Critics charge he helped rally support against passing HB435 earlier this year, which would have increased funding for public charter schools in the state.
Duncan declined a request for comment, referring questions on charter schools to Board of Education chairman Tom Raffio.
"The governor has been thought of as a charter school supporter in the past, but her decision to entrust the care of these public schools to a man with such openly hostile views is a betrayal," said Matt Southerton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools.
Raffio, though, contended on Thursday that support for the schools remains.
"The future of charter schools in our state remains bright," Raffio said. "We understand that charter schools play an important role in our public school system, and that role requires a strong commitment from founders and parents to achieve success."
In 2003, the state kicked off a 10-year pilot program to include up to 20 charter schools.
Prior to 2003, charter organizers needed approval from the state and local school boards. In 2011, a bill was passed by the Legislature establishing the pilot program on a permanent basis and removing the 20-school maximum.
State enrollment figures for the 2013-14 school year show 2,097 students attending charter schools, up from 1,739 in 2012-13. That number has jumped significantly since 2007, when only 325 students attended charter schools.
The state designates charter schools as "independent public schools." They have a contract, or charter, that lays out each school's academic goals and accountability requirements. Each school has a board of trustees.
To open, charter schools need either local authorization, typically through a warrant article seeking voter approval to fund the school, or state authorization, from the New Hampshire Board of Education. All 22 schools in New Hampshire are state-approved.
Charter schools are required to take students from any district, but no more than 10 percent of the students in any one grade are eligible to transfer in any school year without local school board approval, Raffio said.
Critics have stated they wish more charters would supplement existing district schools, rather than serving as alternatives.
In addition to the push to open a charter in the Nashua area, Windham is also looking to set up such a school.
"We're looking to open a charter school that would solve an overcrowding issue in Windham, while partnering with the local district and offering school choice," said Sean Donahue, chairman of the Educational Choices Foundation.
The group is hoping to open The Windham Academy in September 2015. An informational meeting will be held Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Windham Senior Center.
Partnerships at work
Raffio said there are several current examples of partnerships between public and charter schools in New Hampshire that are working.
"The Next Charter School in Derry is a great example," Raffio said. "Derry contracts with Pinkerton Academy, but some middle school students don't feel Pinkerton is right for them. School officials there looked into setting up a charter high school."
The Next Charter School opened in September of 2013, with an enrollment of about 30 students - a number expected to rise to 45 next fall.
Next gets $5,498.30 in state adequacy funds for each student each year. The Derry district also pays Next what it would have given Pinkerton, about $10,700 a student, minus what it loses in adequacy funds, about $4,748 this school year.
In total, Next receives a tuition payment of about $11,500 per student per year to fund the school's operation.
"The North Country Charter Academy is another great example of an integrated, cooperative charter school," Raffio said.
North Country was created in 2004 by a group of nine North Country and four Vermont school districts to assist students at risk for dropping out, but who are committed to graduating from high school.
The school provides computer-based instruction along with faculty coaching and support to nearly 100 students a year.
Each district contracts with North Country to take on students, paying $5,559 per student per year, in addition to the $5,498.30 that the academy receives from the state, for a total of $11,511 per student.
New Hampshire public schools spent about $15,394 per student in 2012-13, according to the state's Center for Education Reform. Charter schools spent between $5,500 and $9,500, according to the Department of Education.
Charter schools receive state adequacy funds of $3,749.15 per kindergarten student and $5,490.80 per student in grades one through 12. While communities where charter schools open their doors are not required to provide services such as lunch and transportation, agreements are occasionally reached - with taxpayers picking up the cost.
Nashua is one example. The district provides transportation to city charter schools for students living within the district.
"For the Academy for Science and Design, we added two buses to our route schedule to accommodate students," said Nashua Director of Transportation Dave Rauseo.
Rauseo said the cost for one bus is $43,740, for a total of $87,480 in additional transportation costs.
"There's another school scheduled to open this fall, but without enrollment data it's too early to know if we need to add any more buses," Rauseo said. "Where we can, we try to match up students with existing pickup routes for the public schools."
There are four new charter schools in New Hampshire scheduled to open later this year.
The Founders Academy, a new classical charter school, is set to open at 5 Perimeter Road in Manchester Sept. 2.
Other schools scheduled to open include the Gate City Charter School for the Arts in Nashua, a K-4 school; Granite State Arts Academy, a public chartered school in Derry, grades nine through 12; and Mountain Village Charter School in Plymouth, grades one through three.
The Founders Academy will hold an information session on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Merrimack YMCA. Organizers of the MicroSociety Academy Charter School will hold an information night at the Nashua Public Library on Tuesday, May 27, at 6:30 p.m.