N.H. Approves $4.5M for Charters, But Moratorium Remains

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The state's Joint Fiscal Committee approved an additional $4.45 million to help cover the costs of the state's charter schools, but the move will not reverse the current moratorium on approving new charter schools.

The committee voted 8-1 Thursday to approve the additional funding to cover a budget shortfall for charter schools. Committee Chairman Rep. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, said that with the committee's action, the state Board of Education should lift its moratorium on new charter schools.

"I wish this item would have come up months ago so we would not hold up applications for charter schools," he said.

But the state Board of Education has stood by its decision to reject all new and pending charter school applications despite the additional funding, saying that money is only for schools already in operation and that it does not change the funding issues facing new charter schools.

"It's a really good first step, but still doesn't take care of the schools in the pipeline, which will have to wait until funding is set for fiscal 2014," said board Chairman Tom Raffio.

It's a back and forth that has been ongoing since Sept. 19, when the board voted to place a moratorium on new charter schools, citing funding concerns. Charter school supporters and legislators around the state have spoken out against the decision since.

While the board has said they support charter schools conceptually, Raffio said members will not hear any charter applications until the new Legislature takes over and is able to show there will be sufficient money to fund new schools. That could be as soon as January, or as late as spring.

In the meantime, the board and the Department of Education will advise the new Legislature of the schools pending approval to help aid the budget process.

Raffio said that if all of the charter schools currently in the pipeline were approved for Fiscal 2014—something he said is extremely unlikely—the state would need $25.6 million. Even if no new charter schools were approved, the state would still need about $16.7 million next year to account for current schools' growth.

Legislators and charter school supporters have questioned those figures, but Raffio said the board wants to ensure that legislators know the maximum funds needed, so there is not a budget shortfall in future years.

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Some members of the Joint Fiscal Committee said more is needed to ensure this situation doesn't happen again.

"It cannot go on that we continue to approve schools without some understanding of what our spending is going to be," said Senate Democratic leader Sylvia Larsen.

The Legislature already altered the system for charter school funding during the last budget process, after the Department of Education presented inaccurate charter school enrollment projections.

When the error was discovered, the Legislature moved to allow the department to spend up to 110 percent of the appropriation for charter schools, with the ability to go back to the committee with an additional request for funding, as was done Thursday.

Education officials, however, have said that change actually made the process of approving new charter schools more difficult. Before the change, the funding and approval process was open-ended. Now, they can't approve new schools without the guarantee of funding.

"If a state agency expends more money than the Legislature gave them permission for ... those state officials become personally liable for those expenditures," said Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards at a meeting with legislators in October.

On Thursday, members of the Joint Fiscal Committee agreed the funding system needed to be looked at.

"My concern is where does this end," said Rep. Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover. "Now we know there are a whole bunch more in the pipeline in the way of additional applications to set up these charter schools."

Raffio said he would also like to see a broader conversation about the process moving forward.

"Communication can be better," he said. "Unless the (funding process) changes, every two years we're going to be in this situation, where schools in the pipeline will have to be put on hold. This may be an opportunity to learn from this, and perhaps change the process."

The governor and Executive Council still need to approve the additional appropriation for charter schools.

Vol. 32, Issue 12

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