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York County districts forgoing charter tuition but charters hit with fee

Four York County school districts have not paid charter school tuition directly in at least a year, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education is picking up the slack, a pro-charter financial consultant said.

For instance, what started out as a protest for South Western School District years ago turned to a convenient alternative to making payments each month. 

And more than 150 districts across the state are also shirking payments that state taxpayers are covering, said Ana Meyers, executive director of charter advocacy organization PA Coalition for Public Charter Schools.

"PDE acts as the debt collector and pays the charter schools," said Michael Whisman, a certified public accountant from independent educational consulting firm Charter Choices, which has consulted with the coalition, in an email.

Northern York County, South Western, South Eastern and York City school districts made no monthly payments from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019, he reported. York City spokeswoman ShaiQuana Bailey noted that the district pays its brick and mortar charters monthly, but payments for cyber charters are deducted through PDE.

When tuition is not paid, charter schools dispute it and PDE redirects money from the district's state funding to cover the costs.

Yearly tuition costs are based on each district's expenditures and enrollment, so they vary between each district and change year to year. For example, Northern York's tuition is 2018-19 was about $10,000, and South Western's was about $1.06 million.

"Charters schools were one of those things that the districts didn’t like — one of those things that they were protesting," said Jeff Mummert, business administrator for South Western.

South Western High School in Penn Township, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

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About 15 years ago, that district's board made the decision to not make monthly payments as a minor show of protest, he said, knowing that the schools would still get paid through the state.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced this month that he would be instituting a fee-for-service to charter schools that file a dispute with PDE — part of a larger charter school reform package.

Wolf has said the reform package would help align the accountability and transparency of these entities with public schools. 

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In this Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018 photo, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at his office in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Last year, PDE processed more than 13,500 funding redirection requests — a 60% increase in seven years, according to a news release.

Reasons for withholding payment could be a question about a student's enrollment, special education status or residency, Whisman wrote, but these issues can be easily resolved.

"For the four noted York County districts that made zero payments last fiscal year, it appears that they are disputing the existence of charters," he added.

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Though South Western was protesting charters years ago, Mummert said that's not necessarily the case now. It's just something the board hasn't revisited, and it offers the convenience and cost savings of not writing checks every month, he said.

Officials from the other three districts did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.

But the disputes increase costs for both charters — through repeated invoices and interest from loans, if needed — and PDE, Whisman said, and Wolf's fee-for-service is an attempt to lower the cost of administering charter school law.

"The cost is growing as the number of redirect requests increase," said PDE spokesman Eric Levis in an email.

That increase could be happening for a number of reasons, including more charters or more districts with students in charters, Levis wrote, but the fact is, the redirection process takes away from PDE's attention to "critical school funding and data quality projects."

A $15 fee was applied to each payment redirected beginning Sept. 15.

Some cyber charters have students from every state district, and depending on how many districts do not make payments, "that's an astronomical figure," Meyers said. Some brick and mortar charters have students coming from more than 35 districts, she added.

But that should not be put on the charter school — it should be put on the noncompliant district, Whisman wrote.

"This is like social services trying to collect child support from a deadbeat dad," Meyers said.

York Academy Regional Charter School CEO Angela Sugarek said all public schools, including charters, should be treated equally by the state.

"Charging a fee to charter schools for redirecting funds owed to them by districts is predatory and shameful," she wrote in an email.

State Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, said it's also unconstitutional for the governor to bypass the legislative process to institute a fee, which is a budgetary concern. If he were really interested, he should have brought it up in the spring before the budget was passed, he said.

"It has nothing to do with fairness whatsoever," Grove said. "The governor does not have the authority to do it — period."

Meyers said it will be a huge drain financially for charters to pay these fees.

"Why should we be penalized when we are not breaking the law?" she said. "If the law’s not going to be enforced, it becomes the Wild West."

When asked why school districts were not penalized, Levis wrote that charters are the only educational provider allowed the avenue to secure funds from the state under charter law.

For Meyers, Wolf's reforms seem to be an attack on school choice. 

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Along with the fee for service, there will also be an application review fee estimated at $86,000 for cyber charters started on or after Jan 1, 2020 — which she said is an attempt by Wolf to initiate a moratorium on schools of that type.

The cost is high because it's "highly-specialized" work, Levis noted, adding that school districts can still offer their own cyber programs and coursework without a review.

"The fee amounts to the actual costs of this comprehensive review, including over 150 hours of staff time per application," he added.

Meyers said the demand for charter schools is high, with about 137,000 students enrolled in the state currently, according to recent estimates.

The governor sees public schools as district schools and forgets that charters are public, too, she said, and that those who attend them are primarily minority and low-income students — and that's who's being affected by these decisions.

Editor's note: This story has been clarified that York City School District does make monthly tuition payments to its brick and mortar charter schools, but for its cyber tuition, payments are deducted from its subsidy by PDE.