South Western: Districts not responsible for charter fee

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

South Western School District will not be paying tuition directly to charter schools — continuing a common practice among districts of redirecting payments through the state.

"They get paid," said the district's business manager, Jeffrey Mummert. "The money gets taken out of our account from (the state Department of Education), so they’re being made whole — it’s just we haven’t paid it directly to them."

At a Nov. 6, board meeting, Mummert recommended the board make no changes to its process of rerouting monthly payments through the state, despite requests to do so from some charters.

More than 150 districts across the state don't pay direct tuition monthly, according to charter advocacy group Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

Northern York County, South Western, South Eastern and York City school districts were among the districts that made no monthly payments to some charters in the 2018-19 school year. York City did pay its brick-and-mortar charters directly.

More:York County districts forgoing charter tuition but charters hit with fee

While not illegal, the practice does create an inconvenience for charters, opponents have said — and that became more of a concern recently after Gov. Tom Wolf required they pay a $15 fee each time funds are redirected.

Ana Meyers, executive director of the charter coalition, has said it's unfair to put that cost burden on the shoulders of charters when it's the responsibility of the school districts to pay tuition.

It was a form of protest against charters when South Western chose to redirect payments about 15 years ago, Mummert said, but in recent years, it's just been a matter of not revisiting the issue.

(L to R): Solicitor Gareth Pahowka, board President Vanessa Berger and Superintendent Dr. Jay Burkhart discuss armed security guards at the South Western School Board meeting Wednesday, June 27, 2018.

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After a few of the charters South Western's students attend threatened to send the district a bill for the monthly fee, Mummert agreed to bring it to the board for a second look.

"If the fee is being charged to the charter schools, why do they have the right to pass that fee on to us?" asked board member Jay Clouspy.

The district's solicitor confirmed that they don't, Mummert said, adding that he'd recommend the district stick to the status quo for practical and cost-saving purposes.

To write a check to each charter, it would be about $20 each — amounting to $240 a month, plus the staff time to go through that process. It's also two to three months before the Education Department redirects funds, so the district earns more interest on that money, he said.

Board members agreed with Mummert on not making the change.

"Yeah, continue what we’re doing," said board member Ann Rinker, and board President Vanessa Berger asserted that the district already pays enough in tuition costs.

"We could do a two-hour commercial now about how charter schools are robbing the districts," she said.

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South Western has 99 students who attend 12 charter schools, Mummert said, adding  the cost to the district amounts to about $1.4 million annually.

Since charter tuition payments are based on district enrollment and expenditures, they could be getting paid thousands of dollars more than what their actual costs are, he said.

 "I find it hard to believe that they can’t afford a $15 fee," Mummert said.

When asked about the fairness of the extra fee to charters, Mummert said the responsibility lies with the state.

"You’ll have to ask the state why they do that," he said.  "I’m not sure, quite frankly, (the fee is) going to be in existence that long."