COATESVILLE—Coatesville school officials may need to make further cuts to programs and staff unless there is a solution to the district's funding battle with Collegium Charter School, school directors said.
By a vote of 7-1, Coatesville school directors adopted a resolution this week calling for a fair charter school funding formula, and authorizing the director of business administration to pay Collegium $2.7 million by Jan. 13, and another $2.7 million no later than March 1.
The root of the problem, school officials said, is that school districts are required to pay charter schools based on enrollment. In the past few years, parents have elected to send their children to Collegium and Avon Grove charter school in droves.
Coatesville pays $11,500 per pupil per year for students who opt to attend Collegium or Avon Grove Charter.
More than 3,000 students from the Coatesville Area School District now attend charters, up from about 1,700 five years ago. In that time, Coatesvillle's payments to charters has expanded by $33 million, to about $54 million per year.
And much of that problem is the price the district must pay charters for special education students, said Robert Fisher, Coatesville school director. Coatesville must pay charters more than $40,000 per special education student, even if that student only needs minimal classes for a hearing impediment.
In 2018-19, Coatesville paid Collegium $13.2 million for special education tuition, which excludes regular funding for 443 students. Collegium's financial reports show the school only spent $6.7 million for special education for students, Fisher said.
"Where did the extra dollars go," Fisher said. "We simply do not know. Charter schools are not held to the same standard as public schools, and are not required to provide the same level of public accountability as a public school district. We can only speculate that (the money) went directly into the school's coffers to the great deterrent of our school district."
Charter school officials claim Coatesville has under-budgeted for special education expenses.
School districts are limited by the state in how much they can raise taxes in any given year. Even at the highest allowed tax increase, the amount of revenue Coatesville would receive is far short of what it needs to cover increase in charter payments and other expenses.
Collegium claims Coatesville owes $18 million. Coatesville wants Collegium to obtain its tuition payments directly through the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The case is now in Commonwealth court.
"This significant withholding of the district's subsidy presented a dramatic financial blow to the district, causing serious cash flow problems, and impact the district's ability to maintain operations at expected levels," Fisher said.
Meanwhile, Coatesville continues to lose students to charter schools to the extent there is a waiting list at Avon Grove Charter Schools. Coatesville’s enrollment has dropped more than 16 percent, to 5,700 in the past 10 years. But in that same time, Collegium has expanded by nearly 130 percent and now has about 3,000 students, 2,100 of whom are from Coatesville.
Tom Keech, Coatesville school director, this week called for residents to contact their lawmakers about the problem.
"We will need some serious help over the next year or two if we are to maintain both charter and public schools here in Coatesville," he said. "If you are a proponent of charter schools, write your legislators and ask them to increase funding to the Coatesville School District. and if you are not a proponent, write your lawmakers and ask them to change the funding formula."
Coatesville school officials acknowledge that Collegium is billing Coatesville the correct amount based on the funding formula. But Coatesville officials maintain that funding formula is flawed.
"Both our charter and public schools will have problems if we don't have solutions here," Keech said.
Fisher said the school district supports a parent's right to choice to allow their children to attend the school of choice. But he said that unless there is equitable funding, Coatesville faces financial ruin.
"We believe that Pennsylvania charter school funding is unfair, inequitable and outdated and in dire need of reform," Fisher said. "Coatesville is one of many school districts faced with the challenges of charter school funding."