Charter schools vie for bigger share of mill levy pie

Littleton Public Schools board seeks to retain funds for special needs students


Littleton Public Schools' Board of Education threw support behind a plan that would increase the amount of mill levy override funding they share with Littleton's charter schools, while retaining funding for students with special needs, but charter parents and officials say the plan falls far short of the spirit and intent of a new law that would allow public and charter schools to distribute the money evenly among students.

Parents and administrators from Littleton Academy and Littleton Preparatory Charter School — Littleton's two charter schools — turned out at the LPS board's June 15 meeting to make their case for why mill levy override funds should be disbursed equally on a per-pupil basis between all of Littleton's students, both public and charter.

LPS officials, though, said they are tasked with supporting numerous programs that charters aren't, including special education, at-risk student programs, and a large transportation network — and that equal distribution of the override funds overlooks disparities in how much it costs to educate students with different needs.

At issue are $26.5 million in annual funds obtained through mill levy overrides. The current negotiated contract between the district and the charter schools has the charters receiving a total of $737,508 per year, divided roughly in half between Littleton Academy and Littleton Prep, according to a presentation by Littleton Schools' assistant superintendent Diane Doney.

That tally is arrived at by taking about 40-45 percent of the override funds and distributing them equally on a per-pupil basis between all LPS schools and the charters, said Littleton Public Schools superintendent Brian Ewert.

A law signed into effect last year, however, says that 95 percent of mill levy override funds should be distributed equally between public and charter schools in a district. The law, called HB 1375, also allows districts to earmark portions of mill levy override funds for programs that support underserved populations.

HB 1375 gives districts until July 1, 2018 to decide how they'll distribute the money for the 2019-2020 school year.

The plan proposed by Doney and LPS director of finance Donna Villamor sets aside $12.4 million of the $26.5 million annual funds for funding special education. The remaining $14.1 million would then be divvied up equally between all students in the district — about 14,000 students in Littleton Public Schools, and 1,000 in the two charter schools — for a final tally of about $740 per student.

The plan would boost the total the charters receive from $737,508 per year to $940,832, an increase of $203,324. If LPS were to equally distribute 95 percent of the money, the charter schools would receive about $1.6 million a year.

The LPS plan came across as negligent to the charter schools, said Shelly Russell, the principal of Littleton Academy.

“HB 1375 passed so that charters wouldn't have to beg their authorizers annually for their fair share of funding,” Russell said. “We're people who come to the table with less, with which we continue to try to do more.”

Numerous parents of charter students spoke at the meeting, citing improvements in their children's educational results after switching to charter schools.

LPS would be making a mistake in allocating mill levy override funds for special needs students because that intended use was not spelled out in the ballot measure that authorized the overrides, said Dan Schaller, the director of governmental affairs for the nonprofit League of Charter Schools.

“You cannot suddenly make up new purposes for the revenue out of whole cloth,” Schaller said. “You've maintained good relationships with your charter schools over the years, and it would be unfortunate to see those relationships deteriorate over the adoption of a policy geared toward trying to deprive your charter schools and their students of some much-needed equalization support.”

Doney said that Littleton's special needs program is hurting for funds, as state support for K-12 education eroded during the Great Recession, with a lasting “negative factor” that shorts LPS by $17 million a year. Meanwhile, she said, the district's special needs program costs $20 million a year — up $6 million a year since 2010.

LPS board members said that while the proposed distribution model isn't totally equitable, it is fair.

"In our budget system, we have explicitly provided higher funding for schools that serve students who have higher needs," said board member Robert Reichardt. "That value has come through as our definition as what is fair... We know and we have backed up with our money that different children costs different amounts to educate."

“Equality says I have a stack of money and I'm going to deal it out evenly until it's gone,” said board member Jim Stephens. “Equity says I've got kids with different needs. I'm not going to spend the same on each kid.”

Beyond special needs students, the charter schools have far fewer students on individualized education plans or learning English as a second language, Stephens said.

The district's plan is in keeping with the provisions spelled out in the law, said board member Jack Reutzel.

“I believe the act gives us a bright line to do what we're contemplating doing,” Reutzel said. “I think this statute is replete with references to equitable funding. (Divvying up the money at) 95 percent is more equal but it's not more equitable. It doesn't differentiate the types of students we teach. If we believe that all kids are our kids and all means all, it's clear to me that some kids cost more.”

Reutzel also pushed back against Schaller's assertion that voters who approved mill levy overrides didn't intend for those funds to be set aside for special needs education, saying the use was well within the scope of what was presented to voters in years past.

Ewert said that in a perfect world, there would be enough money to equally distribute to all schools in the state.

“The challenge here is that I completely agree charter schools are inadequately funded,” Ewert said. “So is every single school district in the state of Colorado.”

The Littleton Public Schools Board of Education will vote on whether to approve the plan at their June 28 meeting.

charter schools, littleton academy, littleton prep, littleton preparatory academy, littleton public schools, littleton board of education, brian ewert


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