News: CJ Exclusives

NC County Stiffs Charter Schools

Halifax students who attend charters in Northampton aren’t being funded by home county

School choice can be costly — to the choice school, that is. Students who cross county lines to attend a charter school should have local funds provided by their county of residence. That’s the state law. But two charter schools in Northampton County are having trouble collecting payments for students who reside in Halifax. The two schools are part of the KIPP Academy network. They are Gaston College Preparatory charter and the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal charter school.

Knowledge is Power Program, and schools in the KIPP network are known for their academic discipline and student accomplishments. Payment woes at Haliwa and Gaston have nothing to do with student performance or school administration.

Halifax County has been dragging its feet on some payments since the 2000-01 school year, said Dr. Ogletree Richardson, principal of Haliwa-Saponi. Richardson said she doesn’t know whether the school will ever get money from previous years, but her immediate concern is out-of-county funding for 2003-04. Richardson has been pursuing the chain of responsibility for Halifax payments with Caleb Dolan, principal of Gaston College Prep. Neither school has received any dollars from Halifax for the current school year.

According to Richardson, Halifax County appeared to be ignoring both schools’ requests for payment over the first half of the 2003-04 school year. By the middle of December, 2003, it was clear that the charter schools would have to be aggressive if they were going to make any progress with Halifax officials. On Dec. 17 Richardson talked with Steven Smith, finance officer for Halifax County, about the 2003-04 payments due. Smith said Halifax hadn’t included charter students in the student count for 2003-04. The request for payment was answered with the response that Halifax simply “had not budgeted for them.”

Halifax County Manager Matthew Delk has not replied to inquiries from either school about the alleged omission. Families of the KIPP students who reside in Halifax are not being cited for truancy, so it’s not clear where the county believes those students attend school. It’s also uncertain whether funds that should have gone to the charter schools have been distributed to in-county schools instead.

Unsuccessful attempts to find out how Halifax County handled the funding question have forced the schools to seek a lawyer. But according to the Department of Public Instruction, the schools already have a legitimate claim to the funds. DPI sent Smith a letter stating that Halifax was “not in compliance” with state law. The letter, dated March 10, 2004, informed Smith that the failure to allocate funds doesn’t relieve Halifax County of its responsibility to make payment.

Following the DPI letter, a March 31 deadline for payment was established. Once back payments were processed, the understanding between Halifax, the KIPP schools, and DPI was that the county would make future payments on time. No payment arrived March 31, however. On April 1, the schools notified DPI that they still had not received payment.

Both Haliwa-Saponi and Gaston College Preparatory use Acadia Northstar to document school finances. Acadia specializes in fiscal management services for charter schools. Robin Snether of Acadia spoke with CJ about the general situation with the schools, and said the DPI letter had established a March 31 deadline.

Because the schools don’t know what the 2003-04 rate of reimbursement from Halifax County should be, Snether said, the best estimate of payments due for 2003-04 are based on last year’s rates. According to Acadia’s figures, Halifax County owes Haliwa-Saponi at least $40,500, and Gaston Prep at least $14,300. Dr. Richardson said there are 80 students at Haliwa, all residents of Halifax County, who have received no county funding this year. She did not have student numbers for Gaston Prep at the time she talked to CJ. Snether said Acadia is also considering hiring a lawyer.

The Haliwa-Saponi and Gaston College Prep cases aren’t that unusual, said Roger Gerber, president of the League of Charter Schools. He said charter schools sometimes have been forced to file lawsuits to get their funds. A dispute in Asheville between the Francine Delaney charter school over entitlements to “fines and forfeitures,” collected by local courts and earmarked for education, took almost five years to resolve. Asheville City district officials said the district did not owe the school a share of the funds. The charter school is technically a separate district, and Asheville City district refused Francine Delaney’s demands for its share of the money.

The 1998 dispute was decided in favor of the school in 2001. In 2002, the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld the 2001 decision. The N.C. Supreme Court declined a review of the case in February 2004. The school won, but the General Assembly limited charter schools’ any retroactive recovery of funds by blocking all claims before July 1, 2003.

Despite the legal requirement, some counties ignore their financial obligation, Gerber said. Schools are forced to choose, in those cases, between foregoing the funds or embarking on expensive and lengthy litigation.

Dr. Karen Palasek is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.