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Education: Charter school enrollment critical to funding

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

When students arrive at the Coastal Montessori Charter School in August they will bring more than a bookbag and a lunch. Unseen as they enter the doors of their new classroom will be the share of Georgetown County School District revenue that follows each student.

Charter schools get public funding, but are governed by their own boards and exempt from some state regulations.

How much funding Coastal Montessori will receive depends on how many students show up. The charter school board and the school district have different views on what that number will be.

The charter school’s $1.14 million budget projects $975,377 in funds from the county.

The school district’s $74.7 million budget projects it will spend $540,000 on the charter school.

The difference between those two figures is more than the charter school budgeted for all its support services. It’s a little more than the school district budgeted to add six full-time teaching positions in the coming year.

“That’s one of the most difficult things, having dealt with charter schools in the past, budgets and projections,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said. “We tried to make sure we were accurate.”

The charter school, which is sponsored by the school district, plans to enroll 138 students in grades one through six. Lonnie Yancsurak, the school director, believes it will hit that target and said it could go higher. Another 25 students have been added to the waiting list.

“It just keeps growing,” he said. “I get calls every day.”

The school district estimates 85 to 90 students will enroll in the charter school, Dozier said. That’s based on discussions with the principals at Waccamaw Elementary and Waccamaw Intermediate.

“They have more than that registered, but some people are telling us they’re not going to attend,” Dozier said.

While the school district bases its budget on projections for local and state revenue for the coming year, funding for the charter school is based on the district’s per-pupil spending for the fiscal year that ended in 2011.

That was $5,823.97, said Bill Moser, a charter school consultant who helped prepare the Coastal Montessori budget. The figure is based on the district’s audit.

Some students get more than that. Those in grades one through three get $6,415.50, based on a state formula that “weights” them at 1.24. Students in grades four through six are weighted at 1, but students classified with special needs get weightings from 1.9 to 5.7.

“We don’t know the classification of our students,” Moser said, so an extra 10 percent was estimated. That’s also based on a state formula.

The charter school isn’t waiting until August to see who shows up. Parents and staff last weekend painted the vacant sixth-grade wing at Waccamaw Middle School that will house the school. There is a “family night” planned June 28, the first of a regular series of monthly get-togethers for the school. The school is also updating its website and sent out its first electronic newsletter last week.

Yancsurak plans to visit each family with a child registered at the school.

There are few places to cut if the enrollment doesn’t bring in the projected revenue, he said.

Rob Horvath, the charter board chairman, shares Yancsurak’s optimism about enrollment. The Montessori component, in addition to drawing on the established private Pawleys Island Montessori School, gives the charter an obvious difference from other public schools, he said.

Horvath met with district staff last week as part of the on-going process of opening the charter. He understands the district is cautious about the enrollment numbers, and thinks the caution is a holdover from the Harbor School, a charter that operated in Georgetown from 1998 to 2000. It closed due to financial problems.

Charter school financing is still tough. Coastal Montessori has frozen spending while it awaits reimbursement for a $75,000 federal start-up grant. The organizers took out two loans to help get the school started. Another $173,000 grant is in the budget for the coming year, but that money won’t be available except to reimburse the school for what it spends.

The good news for the charter is that state funds, which are passed through the school district, should start to flow next month. “They should get money within the first two weeks of July,” Moser said.

What it gets will be based on the per-pupil funding formula and the district’s estimates of enrollment, he explained. Another payment will come in August. The next installment will be based on enrollment for the first 10 days of the school year. If the number is higher than the district estimates for July and August, the district will have to make up the difference.

There will be another adjustment after enrollment is counted on the 45th day of the new school year.

If the district estimates are correct, “we’ll run out of money by November,” Moser said.

If the school meets its enrollment goal, it can expect to get a rise in funds in December. That’s when the school district’s next audit will be approved. With an increase in revenue for the fiscal year that ends June 30 and a decrease in the district’s enrollment, the per pupil figure is likely to rise.

If Coastal Montessori enrollment projections are accurate, “we’ll have to adjust,” Dozier said. “We’ll just have to see.”

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