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D.C. charters say raises give traditional schools an edge
But charter officials say that because D.C. public schools are part of a huge centralized bureaucracy, they are able to offload some operating costs onto other city agencies.
Charters must cover expenses for maintenance and legal services out of their per-pupil funding, but the District's 123 public schools are effectively double-funded because they receive maintenance services from the Office of Public Education and Facilities Modernization and legal help from the D.C. Attorney General's Office. FOCUS estimates the value of these services at $25 million a year.
Public school officials say they shoulder other costs not borne equitably by charters, especially in serving special education students and others with a higher level of needs.
Although charter schools can cap their enrollments, Rhee said, "we have to serve those kids. We have to accept them."
The District also says the cost of the teachers contract is irrelevant. The performance pay system will be financed by private foundations, from which charter schools also raise money. The base pay increases are being funded strictly within the uniform per-student allocation that charters also receive.
Charters "can use that amount (or any other funds) to provide the teacher raises they deem appropriate," D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said in a May 11 letter to D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).
Bowser said it appeared that charter operators enjoy their independence from union contracts and big government bureaucracies when it suits them, then complain when that same freedom is disadvantageous.
"I'm always surprised by the desire to be separate, except when there's something good," Bowser said at a hearing last month.
Perhaps the most daunting issue, charter officials said, is the absence of a capital budget to finance school construction. Because charters must provide for their buildings, they also receive a per-pupil facilities allowance to cover rent, mortgage and related expenses. But some school operators say the $2,800 per-student stipend doesn't come close to meeting their facilities costs. Allison Kokkoros, principal at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School told the D.C. Council at a hearing in March that the facilities allowance covers about 66 percent of her costs.
FOCUS said its analysis of D.C. public schools, which are supported by a $200 million-a-year capital budget, shows the per-pupil facilities subsidy at $5,822 a student.
D.C. officials contend that the facilities payment is in some cases overly generous and that some schools have diverted part of it to cover non-facilities costs, such as teacher salaries. It is one reason that Fenty moved last year to cut the allowance from $3,109 a student to a maximum of $2,800. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who is challenging Fenty for mayor, has proposed partially restoring the cut, raising the fee to $3,000.
Charter officials say they don't want special treatment. "From my perspective, the issue is not really a question of competition," said Joshua Kern, head of Thurgood Marshall Academy. "The core issue is equity and parity."