Payback time for public schools

Districts must figure out how much public money they owe charter schools.

Staff WritersNovember 25, 2009 

Public school leaders across the state, and especially in the Triangle, are recalculating their budgets to figure out how many millions they owe charter schools to comply with a state court ruling.

This month, the state Supreme Court refused to review a state Court of Appeals ruling that said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system had undercounted how much money it owed charter schools, which are independent public schools.

The school districts with charter schools are supposed to pass along a per student share of local education money.

Now, other school districts are seeing how closely they followed Charlotte-Mecklenburg's practices and how much more money they will have to provide to charters.

Wake County, home to 13 charter schools, might have to provide an additional $1 million a year to charter schools. And that amount could go even higher if charter schools seek money they say they're owed for years past.

"It's going to have a major impact," said Ann Majestic, Wake's school board attorney. "It will take away money from the school system."

Durham County has seven charter schools. Although the number is fewer than in Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the Durham charters represent about 10 percent of the county's student population.

"Durham is the most severely impacted district in the state by this ruling," said Hank Hurd, Durham schools' chief operating officer. He will become Durham's interim superintendent Jan. 1, after Carl Harris leaves to take a job in the Obama administration.

Richard Vinroot, the lawyer who represented five charter schools that successfully sued the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, said the money wasn't the school districts' to keep.

"The money that is going to be taken from them should have gone to the charter schools in the first place," said Vinroot, a member of the board of a charter school and a former Republican mayor of Charlotte.

The Supreme Court decision does not affect a separate lawsuit filed in September by the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law against seven school districts; it seeks local money for construction.

Vinroot said other charter schools in the state could ask for three years' worth of money from public schools.

Bob Luddy, a conservative businessman who founded Franklin Academy, a charter school in Wake Forest, said the school would review the court decision. With more than 1,100 students, Franklin Academy is the largest charter school in Wake County.

"It's to the benefit of the public schools to cooperate with charter schools," Luddy said. "They're all public schools."

Already tough times

The timing of the court decision is especially challenging for school districts because of the state of the economy. Last week, Wake Superintendent Del Burns announced plans to cut $20 million from next year's budget because of the lingering effects of the recession, such as getting less money from the state.

"We're doing some of the same kinds of things Wake is doing," said Hurd of the Durham County school system. "We're examining every position."

Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed to this report. or 919-829-4534

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