By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
Taking a step into the political arena to point out the damage he thinks charter schools are doing to public schools, Brookfield Superintendent Tim Saxton spoke to Ohio legislators detailing how much those schools have cost his district.
In a hearing March 12 before the state’s subcommittee on school finance, Saxton told lawmakers his district has lost more than $2 million in the last 10 years to charter schools, whose operating costs are far lower than brick and mortar public schools.
About 49 of the district’s 1,199 students are enrolled in cyber schools whose instruction is conducted over the Internet. In the last year, Saxton’s efforts to lure some of them back netted him one student, he said.
Just weeks away from officially being declared in a fiscal emergency, Brookfield Local School District is facing a $500,000 deficit that, without an infusion of cash from state coffers or taxpayers, will grow to more than $2.9 million within four years. School directors are placing a 4.85-mill levy on the May ballot, hoping to generate an additional $606,000 annually.
The district has already laid off teachers and support staff and cut programs. Without more financial support from the community, harsher cuts will likely come at the hands of the Ohio Department of Education, once it takes over operations under the fiscal emergency.
Currently the state is auditing the district, a process that will take about four weeks to complete, Saxton said. Once the numbers are verified, it’s likely that a fiscal emergency will be officially declared.
That paves the way for state officials to make whatever cuts are deemed necessary to balance the budget, although they strive to work with local directors, according to Roger Hardin, assistant director of the state’s Finance Program Services, who spoke at a school board meeting in February.
While charter schools aren’t solely to blame for the district’s financial woes, Saxton said the state’s system of funding allows charter schools to garner nearly $6,753 for each student enrolled, while public schools get $3,916. That’s because, Saxton said, “the money follows the student.”
While the “uneven playing field” is detrimental to the district’s wallet, Saxton said he is more concerned about the poor quality of education students receive from several online schools. Of nine area charter schools serving Brookfield students, only one is rated as “effective” by the state. Six others are listed by the state as on academic watch or academic emergency.
For example, he said, one of the more popular online schools, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, met only five of 26 state effectiveness indicators. A report card issued by the state placed Summit Academy of Warren (one of 10 indicators) and Summit Academy of Youngstown (zero of 12 indicators) on academic emergency.
“If those were our numbers, I’d be out of work and all the students would be looking for another school to attend,” he said.
Saxton pointed out that charter schools offer no athletics, transportation, lunches or even a full-day’s education, yet are funded at twice the levels of public schools. “There are no contractual obligations, no board policy and none of them are really local districts,” he said.
“Somebody in Columbus is really pro-charter school,” he said.
Generally, Saxton said, two scenarios usually lead students to charter schools. The first, he said, is often for religious reasons, at the parent’s discretion.
“Those are the people that are going to succeed with charter schools. They value education and will make the best use of the material provided. I have absolutely no problem with anyone who wants a choice in where they go to school. I have a problem with the way it’s funded,” he said.
He acknowledged that there are some things charter schools are very good at, such as one-to-one tutoring, but said “they don’t make that freely known” because it costs them more money.
Online schools are free to families, he said, and often entice students by making enrollment very easy. After a student is registered, “they send them a computer and a big box with all the course material for the year,” Saxton said. “No money exchanges hands. Sometimes they even pay for the Internet service. They have all these perks to draw people in.”
The second, and more common reason, he said, is that students choose charter schools because they have either attendance, academic or disciplinary problems. “Charter schools are supposed to monitor the number of hours a student spends online. Well, we all know how easily that can be manipulated. What happens is that they end up falling further behind. Eventually, when the online school catches on, they kick them back to us. And what we’re finding is that now they are a year behind in everything,” Saxton said.
He was pleased with the five minutes he was given before the subcommittee and said four of the five legislators were very engaged and asked him questions. A fifth, he said, got up and left the room after the first school administrator spoke and never returned.
In Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s proposed budget, Brookfield is slated to receive about $230,000 more in the next two years, and while Saxton said he applauds the effort, he still thinks funding is falling short. The district receives about $5.2 million from the state annually, but loses $533,000 right off the top to charter schools.
“How am I supposed to plan my budget? We’re getting that money but if I lose more students to charter schools and the funding follows them, I’m looking at losing a lot of it,” he said. “I’m just asking that we don’t take a not-for-profit organization and make them a for-profit. I believe in the public school system. I want to see that succeed,” he said.