Later this month, the York City school board might approve its fifth and sixth charter school.

That would vault the city schools near the top of a state list for the most charter schools in a single public school district.

It's a list on which administrators and some school board members don't want to be so high.

Adding York Academy Regional Charter School and HOPE for All Charter School would place the district third in the state for most charter schools, behind only the much larger Philadelphia and Pittsburgh school districts.

Only about a dozen of the state's 500 districts have more than one charter school.

And the York City School District ranked sixth in the state in out-of-pocket charter school costs last school year, according to a York Dispatch analysis of state data.

The district spent an estimated $6.1 million on charter school expenses in the 2008-09 year, after state reimbursement. The $6.1 million accounts for about 7 percent of last year's budget.

By comparison, Philadelphia has 68 charter schools, about 10 times as many as second-highest Pittsburgh, with seven. Both districts have much larger budgets than York City's, yet the percentage of their overall budget for charter expenses is about the same as York City's.

As charter school enrollment climbs, so will city schools' charter school expenses. Next year, the district estimates it will spend at least $9 million out-of-pocket on charter expenses.

That doesn't include the two potential new charters.

The dilemma: It's a thought that makes some York City school administrators and board members cringe, saying charters are bankrupting the district.

Superintendent Sharon Miller said the charter school expenses are a "constant drain" taking away funding
that could improve city schools and avoid the situation where so many students want to leave for a charter school.

But in a school district that fails to meet state academic standards with regularity, having options is practically a necessity, charter supporters say.

And the cost is something the district would have to pay anyway if those children returned to city schools.

That turns the proliferation of charter schools into a chicken-or-the-egg quagmire: Is charter school funding the problem, or the fact there are charters in York City to fund at all?

Charter opponents believe the charters make it harder for the district to spend money on the kinds of things that would help students and make them not want to leave in the first place.

On the other hand, state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola said, York City should not "moan and complain about kids going to charter schools," and instead improve its schools so there's not a desire for charters in the first place.

"They should find out why those kids are leaving," said Piccola, who chairs the Senate education committee.

York City has more than 1,400 students in charter schools, which is "a financial burden" on the district, said Dennis Baughman, a former York City administrator who is now leading the effort to open York Academy. But then again, "why do they have (so many) students at charter schools?"

Financial burden? About 25 percent of the district's students attend a charter school. No other York County school district has a brick-and-mortar charter to compete with.

For every student who attends one of the schools, York City pays a fee, based on the average per-pupil cost in the district.

That adds up quickly. York City spent about $6 million to send students to Lincoln Elementary Charter this school year, according to district estimates, and about $3.4 million on New Hope, which serves grades 6-12.

The state's partial reimbursement covers either 30 percent or 42 percent of each student's cost, depending in part on the district's wealth.

York City is one of just five districts in the state to qualify for the 42 percent rate. Out of the about $10 million the district paid in charter expenses in 2008-09, it was reimbursed about $4 million, according to state data.

"It's not a one-for-one match," said Tom Foust, a school board member who has made charter school funding one of his top agendas. "It's not adequately reimbursed."

Piccola agrees districts should "have some funding. And it should be tied to the student." But mostly, "it's a classic case of school districts wanting more and more money."

Stay or go: The addition of a charter school can also represent a cost savings, but usually only in more extreme cases.

A significant number of students need to go to charters to see a savings, state and local officials say.

For a district like York City that loses dozens of students in the same grade level all over the district, it can mean staff reductions are possible. City schools have lost so many students they are moving fifth-graders to the half-vacant middle schools.

Oscar Rossum Sr., board president of Lincoln Elementary and Helen Thackston Middle charter schools, said city schools' staffing expenses should be lower because of the presence of his schools.

"If we weren't managing the school, York City School District would, and they'd get that money. They are not, so we are getting that money," Rossum said.

Lincoln is a preschool through fifth-grade school, and Helen Thackston is for sixth and seventh grades.

Academic option: Rossum said city students should be able to go elsewhere if their neighborhood school is failing. By state standards, no city school is meeting all requirements.

Lincoln is doing better for the most part on its test scores than the city elementary schools, although it did not meet state standards in special education last school year. New Hope Academy Charter School, which covers 6th-12th grades, didn't reach its target in math performance.

Crispus Attucks Youthbuild Charter, which serves ages 17-21, doesn't qualify to take the state tests because it isn't large enough, at just about 85 students. It did fail to meet graduation standards, however.

Helen Thackston just opened last fall, so test scores won't be available until later this year.

The York City School District has struggled on state tests, although it has improved scores each year in recent years.

Superintendent Miller said she thinks the district is improving its academic achievement and offering the right mix of programs to make it more attractive for students to stay.

"We are capable of providing that," she said. "We do have the tools that are necessary. We have the initiatives in place."

The future of charters in city schools: As the board considers new charter schools, it must consider factors such as whether the school is in an adequate facility, if it provides a unique program, and if it has the necessary professional staff.

The board cannot include any financial impact in its decision.

"That's a serious problem," Foust said.

Recent school boards have voted against various charter applications and renewals, which has led to state appeals and re-submittals that were all eventually approved.

Rossum said he believes the revamped school board will more readily embrace charter schools.

Three new board members were elected last fall, including former Lincoln board member Gary Calhoun. Plus, York City School Board members Samuel Beard and Beverly Atwater, who have decried the academic performance of the district, are now president and vice president.

"I expect them to come in with a different attitude," Rossum said.

Beard said he supports giving students more options if city schools aren't providing a good education.

School officials shouldn't be surprised at the number of charters in the city, he added.

"You know why? Because you're not teaching the kids," Beard said.

-- Reach Andrew Shaw at 505-5431, ashaw@york dispatch.com or twitter.com/ydblogwork.