Despite Mediation Efforts, Baltimore Charter School Lawsuit Moves Forward

by: Zenitha Prince Senior AFRO Correspondent
/ Students perform yoga at Tunbridge Public Charter School (Courtesy Photo) /
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Students perform yoga at Tunbridge Public Charter School, one of the 14 schools suing Baltimore City Public Schools over funding. (Courtesy Photo)

Several public charter schools filed lawsuits against Baltimore City Public Schools last month, alleging a lack of transparency and equity in the way the system disburses funds. And, though school officials’ withdrawal of a controversial funding proposal and the appointment of former mayor Kurt L. Schmoke as a mediator last week are hopeful signs that a funding agreement can be reached, those legal complaints will move forward, charter officials said.

“It is great that the mayor brought Kurt Schmoke in to help mediate these discussions. I do feel hopeful. But we also need to maintain a strong stance because we’re up against a big bureaucracy and that’s a difficult position to be in,” said Bobbi Macdonald, executive director, City Neighbors Foundation, which operates three public charter schools.

“The lawsuit continues in order to get the school system to provide a level of transparency for parents to know that funds are going to the classroom and not staying at North Avenue [where BCPS’ headquarters are located],” said Steve Kearney, owner of KO Public Affairs and spokesman for the charter schools suing BCPS.

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Students perform yoga at Tunbridge Public Charter School, one of the 14 schools suing Baltimore City Public Schools over funding. (Courtesy Photo)

On Sept. 10, nine schools—Afya Public Charter School, Brehms Lane Elementary (which was recently approved as an Afya Baltimore school), City Neighbors Charter School, City Neighbors Hamilton, City Neighbors High School, The Green School of Baltimore, Patterson Park Public Charter School, Southwest Baltimore Charter School, and Tunbridge Public Charter School—filed suits against BCPS. Since then, two more schools, KIPP Harmony Academy and KIPP Ujima Village Academy, have joined. In all, the plaintiffs represent a combined student body of 5,177 children.

The complaints were the culmination of longstanding disputes since a 2007 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling ordered the school system to equitably fund its 34 charter schools in accordance with the state Charter School Law. Efforts were made to engage theschool system in mediation, charter officials said, but those overtures were rejected.

Under the revised funding formula proposed by Schools CEO Gregory Thornton, 26 public charter schools would see a decline in per pupil funds, and 13—including eight of Baltimore’s highest-performing schools—would not be able to purchase books or pay teachers, possibly forcing them to shut their doors, charter officials claim.

The funding plan sparked an outcry among parents and supporters of the city’s charter schools, prompting a rally, letters to the editor and other signs of protest.

At the basis of the contention between charter schools and BCPS’ central administration is “resistance to change,” Macdonald said. “It is difficult for an entrenched system to have a group of activist schools that are pushing for reform.”

Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry, D-Dist. 4, who introduced a resolution expressing support for public charter schools and calling on Thornton to withdraw the divisive funding proposal, agreed. He pointed to the increasing numbers of public charter schools—which are semi-autonomous in nature—and how that may be reducing the centralization of power at North Avenue.

From the 2006-07 through the 2014-15 school years, public charter school enrollment increased from 3,946 to 12,655 – and to approximately 13,700 this year – according to the charter schools.

“Of the 10 public schools in my district, four are charter schools. Five years ago, only one was a charter,” Henry, vice chairman of the council’s education committee, said. “As charters increase, the need for central administration decreases. It’s hard for any organism to willingly and easily decrease itself.”

School officials, however, have challenged the claims set forth in the lawsuits.

In October 2013, Perkins-Cohen said, BCPS created a workgroup of stakeholders, including charter schools, and legal experts, in response to charter schools’ concerns about the funding formula. The group met for two hours every week from October 2013 to June 2014, examining line items such as revenue sources, expenditures, methodology used to arrive at formula, etc.

“In mid-June 2014, the charter schools informed us they no longer wanted to participate in the group because it was no longer meeting their needs,” the school official said, adding efforts to re-engage charter schools in the process were rebuffed. “We kept coming back to the same issues where we couldn’t agree on how to treat certain services.”

The charter schools have complained that millions of dollars are being retained at central administration for “vaguely defined, expensive ‘services’ that, in many cases, charter schools neither want nor need.”

Perkins-Cohen said charter schools are unreasonably demanding a per pupil funding formula based only on revenue and not including the district-wide costs and needs-based services such as health benefits for school retirees, and the costs of educating students with physical and learning disabilities and those who are English language learning and lower-income which would exceed the costs of educating the average general education student.

Schmoke, currently the president of the University of Baltimore, has declined to address the pending negotiations.

One complication, Perkins-Cohen said, is that funding from state and federal sources, such as Title I and Race to the Top initiatives have been cut.

“Resources have gotten tighter,” she said, “and when that happens, people start fighting over the scraps.”

Councilman Henry agreed that advocacy needs to be directed elsewhere.

“This kind of infighting among ourselves—because this is essentially public schools fighting each other—this is time and energy we ought to be using to fight the real problem, which is that the state hasn’t provided the level of funding to Baltimore City that it should be providing,” the politician said. “If Governor Hogan had not cut millions of dollars out of the budget for Baltimore City education, we literally would not had to have this conversation.”

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