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Fitch: Charter School Caps Could Cost N.H. Money

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New Hampshire budget negotiators said Tuesday they will heed a warning from the attorney general's office that a proposed cap on charter school enrollments could cost the state some federal money.

In the new state budget, the Senate proposed capping charter school enrollment at 850 pupils in 2010 and 950 in 2011.

In work to close the state budget shortfall, legislators are trying to resolve a school-funding issue of double counting when students attend traditional schools but also take online charter school classes.

But Deputy Attorney General Bud Fitch told negotiators Tuesday the caps could jeopardize plans to use $160 million in federal stimulus funds for school aid. He said states must adhere to existing school-aid rules under the federal stimulus regulations.

Critics also complain the caps would force charter schools to ask some students to leave.

At the meeting, House Finance Committee Chairwoman Marjorie Smith told Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Heath the proposed cap would be removed. Negotiators, instead, will explore ways for the state to avoid paying double for students who attend both regular and charter schools.

"We need something for this budget," Smith, D-Durham, said. "We are not going to keep the cap, but we don't have an inexhaustible supply of money."

Smith directed Heath to come up with a formula within 48 hours.

Fitch's warning came on the second day of negotiations between the House and Senate over a compromise budget for the two years beginning July 1. The deadline to reach an agreement is June 18.

The governor and lawmakers have struggled to close a $650 million revenue gap in the $3.2 billion in spending from general state revenues that affect New Hampshire residents. The total budget is expected to be closer to $11.6 billion when federal and other funds are included.

Budgets proposed by the governor, House and Senate agree on closing the state-run Tobey School in Concord for children with behavioral problems — though they differ on how quickly. The small school is expensive to run and has faced closure in the past.

The school is approved for 12 day students and 22 residential students, but enrollment this spring dipped to 20. Once closed, students would be taught in home districts or other settings.

Negotiators discussed possible uses for the building once empty. Administrative Services Commissioner Linda Hodgdon told negotiators it would cost $50,000 annually to heat the building to serve as an overnight refuge for homeless families.

Negotiators suggested she discuss with Concord officials if the city would participate financially.

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