EDUCATION: Six other local school districts could

be hit with larger bills

as a result of appeal.

BY RICK FORGIONE

forgioner@gnnewspaper.com

A dispute between Niagara Charter School and the Niagara Falls School District could prove costly for other school systems throughout Niagara and Erie counties.

State Education Commissioner Richard Mills will decide whether Niagara Falls is obligated to pay $2.4 million to the charter school this year based on the 256 Falls students enrolled at the independent public school. For every student transferring, the district must pay $9,077 for that student’s portion of state aid.

Charter officials filed an appeal with the commissioner after it became apparent Niagara Falls didn’t intend on paying for 256 students.

The district believes it’s only responsible to pay $1.4 million for 155 students this year because that’s what the charter school projected in its original application submitted to the state in March 2005. The balance for the additional 101 students would then be paid by the district next academic year.

Under that belief, six other local school districts would be responsible for covering the other $1 million this year, including Tonawanda, Sweet Home, Lewiston-Porter and Starpoint, which combined would have to pay $332,112, despite not having any students currently enrolled at the charter school.

“If that’s the process set up, obviously we’ll have to abide by it,” said Don Rappold, interim superintendent of Lewiston-Porter, which was projected to have five students at a cost of $50,510 attend Niagara Charter according to the original application. “We didn’t budget anything.”

North Tonawanda had one student transfer to Niagara Charter and Niagara-Wheatfield had seven, but both districts would be charged more than $200,000 for about 25 students each if the bills are determined based on the application’s projections.

“That would be horrible,” N-W Business Administrator Kerin Dumphrey said. “We’d have to try and find the money by cutting someplace else.”

Niagara Falls school officials said earlier this week they only worked in a $1.4 million payment to the charter school in the 2006-07 budget. If the commissioner rules they owe the additional $1 million, it will lead to a deficit and likely 50 to 60 teachers being laid off, School Superintendent Carmen Granto said.

Still, Falls school attorney Angelo Massaro insists state law is on the district’s side, citing a provision that says amounts payable to a charter school in its first year of operation shall be based on the projections of initial-year enrollment set forth in the charter. Under that rule, all seven school districts must pay for what was estimated in the charter’s application and then adjustments would be made next academic year, including giving reimbursements to those districts that overpaid, Massaro believes.

Clark Godshall, who oversees all local school districts as superintendent of Niagara/Orleans BOCES, has declined to comment on the merits of Niagara Charter’s appeal until the commissioner makes a ruling. He did say all of the districts have been notified of the situation and possible charges.

“We’re just waiting for direction from SED,” Godshall said.

While it could take weeks for Mills to make a final decision, one state charter representative who helped write the law called the district’s interpretation “ridiculous.”

“That’s just a flat out rip-off what the Niagara Falls School District is trying to do,” said Peter Murphy, director of policy for the New York Charter Schools Association. “They’re trying to gip the children that live in their own community by denying them a free education.”

As for the portion of state law on which Massaro is relying, Murphy said it’s a case of “clever lawyering.”

“He’s misreading the law by taking one sentence in isolation,” Murphy said. “He’s manufactured a loophole that doesn’t exist.”

In the eight years charter schools have been operating in New York state, Murphy said he can’t recall a similar situation like the current battle between Niagara Falls and Niagara Charter. A few school districts have attempted to withhold funding for other reasons, but were later ordered to pay up.

Districts that don’t make the proper payments will be reported to the state commissioner — as Niagara Falls has been — and that district’s state aid could be reduced to cover the amount owed.

Charter school payments are broken into six invoices throughout the academic year. According to the State Education Department’s Web site, each invoice should be calculated by the prior month’s enrollment figures. Under those guidelines, Niagara Falls would currently be responsible for the current enrollment of 256 students. Instead, it has made two of the six payments based on 150 students so far.

“The charter school invoiced the district and the district needs to pay the entire invoice,” Murphy said. “The rules are the same for everyone."

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