The designers of the 21st Century Community School in Indianapolis didn’t set out to create a school built around a railroad theme. But that hasn’t stopped them from having plenty of fun with the brand-new charter school’s location in Union Station, the city’s redeveloped 1920s-era railway depot where office workers and shoppers now rub elbows with travelers catching the 8:25 to Chicago.
Visitors to the school’s Web site are greeted with the toot of a locomotive whistle. Students are putting on a musical about rail travel. And the equipment on the school’s 15,000-square-foot playground, which is built on an old platform for elevated trains, was inspired by the railroads’ glory days.
“If you look up at the bridge that used to have trains going over, now you see kids playing,” said John Hayden, the “mentor teacher” who serves as the school’s principal. “Our school is right where the first seven tracks used to be.”
Mr. Hayden has high hopes for his new 119-student school, believing that its emphasis on project-based, multiage, and technology-intensive instruction will be the ticket to big gains in student learning. But not everyone is as excited to see his Union Station dream school get rolling. In fact, officials from the city’s largest school district, which started its own alternative school in the historic train station last year, have started suggesting that the city’s new charter schools are threatening to derail the district’s budget.
Indiana’s first 11 charter schools opened for business this school year, with four of them located within the Indianapolis Public Schools district. That makes the district the only one in the state to host more than one of the independent public schools, and IPS officials say they are feeling the pinch.
The “2 Percent Minimum”
“We aren’t anti- charter school,” said Rebecca R. Bibbs, a spokeswoman for the district. “We’ve taken the position that any options necessary to help students achieve is important, and if that means charter schools, so be it. The issue is more with the funding.”
Like more than half of Indiana’s school systems, IPS has its state aid calculated under a provision known as the “2 percent minimum guarantee.” That exception to the regular per-student method of determining state aid aims to ensure at least small funding increases to school systems that have stable or declining enrollments.
For the fiscal year starting in January, the district’s proposed spending plan is $489 million, up by 5.5 percent, or $25.7 million, from this year’s budget.
Despite that bottom-line increase, though, Indianapolis Public Schools officials say the new charter schools pose fiscal problems because many of the students at the start-up schools had previously gone to private schools. Now that the district must share its revenues with those new students to the public school sphere, IPS officials say, less money per pupil is left for IPS students than would have been the case if the charters had never opened.
Ronald Black, the IPS business manager, said the district is sending charter schools about $1.5 million this year for students who live within the district, but who had not gone to IPS schools.
“This ends up being quite a bit of a loss for us,” said Ms. Bibbs.
The IPS, by far the largest of the 11 school districts within the Indianapolis city limits and the biggest statewide, saw its enrollment dip this fall by about 580 students, to 40,660, Ms. Bibbs said.
About 460 of the roughly 650 students enrolled in the four new charter schools reside within the IPS boundaries, according to the office of Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, who granted charters to three of the four new schools. Indiana’s charter law, enacted last year, allows school districts, the state’s public universities, and the Indianapolis mayor to authorize charters.
An aide to Mr. Peterson, who is the only mayor in the country to have statutory authority to sponsor charter schools, said the mayor is “sensitive” to districts’ budget concerns.
“We have to balance the strong desires of parents to have additional high-quality public schools against any fiscal implications they may have on the districts, and we think we’ve done that,” said David E. Harris, who works for the mayor as the city’s charter school director.
Mr. Hayden of the 21st Century Community School, a longtime public school educator himself, also says he understands the money woes felt by the district.
But he says he is under much tougher budget constraints himself at his fledgling “one room” school, which currently serves children in grades K-6, and plans to expand to K-12. “We’re really having to scramble to make sure we meet all of our financial commitments,” he said.
Balancing his books has been harder than he expected because school districts are interpreting the new charter law in a way that is producing a lengthy delay in some payments. Mr. Black of the IPS agreed that the charter schools were being hurt by that kink in the charter statute and said the legislature should address that and other problems in the law.
Timothy P. Ehrgott, the president of the Irvington Community School, a newly opened 115-student charter school in Indianapolis, agrees.
“Some sort of solution has to be worked out,” he said, adding that he didn’t want funding disputes to wreck the relationship between charter schools and districts.
“We’re all public schools,” he said.
“In the end, it shouldn’t be about money or what school gets it. It should be about making sure the kids are taken care of, wherever they are.”