Charter schools not immune to school budget cuts
By Kyle LoJacono
Learning Gate Community School has been educating children from Hillsborough and Pasco counties since 2000, but its charter expires this June.Parents and students do not have to worry because charter schools like Learning Gate apply for extensions of their charters every few years and it seems likely the Lutz based institution will continue.
“I haven’t visited the school yet as part of its application for an extension, but I will soon,” said Susan Valdes, chairwoman for the Hillsborough school board. “I do know the parents love (Learning Gate) and the children are engaged. The school has a good record and I don’t see many negatives with it.”
Patti Girard has been Learning Gate’s principal since it was established.
“We opened the school because we felt we had a different approach to education with an environmental focus,” Girard said. “It started as a pre-kindergarten daycare in 1983 south of Lutz and today we have kids from kindergarten to eighth grade…We are applying for a 15-year extension, which is the longest we could ask for.”
Girard said she believes Learning Gate does a very good job preparing students for high school while keeping its environmental focus.
Valdes, who has been on the Hillsborough school board since 2004, said no extension can happen until Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia makes her recommendation on the school. The board will then vote on charter extension in either May or June.
“We’ve had to close some charter schools since I’ve been on the board and others did not have their charters extended,” Valdes said. “That’s usually because the school wasn’t doing right by the kids or because the school had funding issues.”
The Hillsborough school board has closed or not renewed the charter of 15 schools since 2001. There are 27 charter schools in Hillsborough this year and six more will be added for the 2010-11 school year.
Charter schools began in Florida in 1996 and they are in fact public schools. Unlike private schools, charters have to meet certain guidelines, such as performance on the Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).
“Charter schools were established to give people choices for their children’s education,” Valdes said. “If people think they can do better at educating kids with similar funding we give them the option to start a charter school. They have to follow all of our standards, but it gives them freedom to teach the kids with a different focus and with different methods.”
Jenna Hodgens, supervisor of charter schools in Hillsborough, said charter schools’ public funding comes primarily from the number of students it has, also known as the number of full-time equivalents (FTEs). Charters schools receive $6,400 this school year for every FTE it has, but the number can change each year based on what the Florida Department of Education decides is most appropriate.
“The county keeps 5 percent of the money for each student for administrative costs,” Hodgens said. “Other than that schools can receive grants from companies and organizations and the parents of the schools can have fundraisers. Charter schools can’t charge anything for tuition like private schools can, so the parents usually have to get creative in doing fundraisers.”
“Last year the per student funding went down a lot, something like the most it had in a decade,” said Marty Solomon, member of the Learning Gate board of directors. “It usually goes up with the price of living and it instead dropped. This is the most critical issue for all public schools. We’ve heard there might be a slight increase this year, but that was after last year’s major cut.”
The cut was between 6 and 10 percent from the previous year, but the exact amount was not available by press time.
“I’m confident the best schools will be able to educate our children,” Valdes said. “I support choices for families in education and charters schools are part of those options. We need to focus on the kids. My main focus is on helping them become productive citizens.”
Solomon, who is an attorney and volunteers on the school’s board, still sees the positives of the school despite the funding problems.
“It’s just a fantastic program at Learning Gate,” Solomon said. “It’s a gorgeous campus and has superb teachers and faculty. I think kids should be outside and the environmental focus of the school gets them outside. It teaches them to take care of the environment while learning.”
Once the school’s charter is taken care of, Learning Gate’s next step is expanding its program to include a high school.
“That’s still a little bit in the future,” Girard said. “Now we lose our kids after eighth grade, which is good in a way. They can experience a different school setting, but we’d like to keep them through high school.”