With the Lafayette Parish school system facing another year of budget deficits, the parish teacher organization on Thursday called on legislators to prohibit local dollars from funding state-approved charter schools.
The Lafayette Parish Association of Educators called a news conference to bring attention to the funding issue, which has contributed to the school district’s $10.4 million budget shortfall this year as state and local funding is re-routed to three charter schools in the parish and the oil slump continues to hurt sales tax collections.
All of the schools’ applications were rejected by the Lafayette Parish School Board and then approved, on appeal, by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“If the state creates the charter, the state needs to pay the bill,” said Rodolfo Espinoza, LPAE president.
Lafayette Renaissance Charter Academy and Acadiana Renaissance Charter Academy will receive a combined $15.8 million in state and local funds in the 2016-17 school year.
Both schools’ budgets were approved Thursday night by the Lafayette Charter Foundation, which oversees the two schools managed by the Florida-based company Charter Schools USA.
The schools pay about 15 percent of their budgets to Charter Schools USA for administrative services and another 16 percent — or about $1.4 million — to lease their schools’ buildings.
Critics of charter schools, including Espinoza and the LPAE, oppose that arrangement, through which taxpayer funds are sent to out-of-state companies that stand to make a profit.
Espinoza said charter organizations sold themselves on the concept that public dollars follow the child, but charter schools — though considered public — are not required to foot the bill for things like transportation or the state teacher retirement system and its debt.
Both public and charter schools receive the same amount of money per student.
“Frankly, we’ve been misled,” Espinoza said.
The public school system lost $14.2 million in 2015 and $18.9 million in 2016 after three charter schools opened in the parish, according to Lafayette Parish school system figures.
Espinoza pointed to the state voucher program, which once paid for low-income students in low-performing districts to attend private schools through the same public funding formula used for public and charter schools. The state Supreme Court found it unconstitutional, and now the Department of Education funds the program through different means.
“The simplest solution would be to go for the same method of funding for the charters that were created by the state,” Espinoza said.
Meanwhile, 711 students are on the waiting list for Acadiana Renaissance, which already is under fire by anti-charter groups for failing to adhere to a state law that requires charter schools to enroll a certain percentage of at-risk students.
State law mandates charter schools’ at-risk populations mirror the average at-risk population of the district in which the school operates. In Lafayette Parish, about 67 percent of students are at-risk, according to the state Department of Education.
Only 36 percent of students enrolled at Acadiana Renaissance, located in the affluent Youngsville area, are economically disadvantaged, or at-risk, according to October data from the state.
Its sister school, Lafayette Renaissance, located in north Lafayette, has 123 students on its waiting list. Some 72 percent of its students are considered at-risk.
Mary Louella Riggs-Cook, Lafayette Charter Foundation president, said Thursday the organization plans to “get creative” on increasing its at-risk population.
She said the school accepts students in the order of its waiting list.
“If a child comes to us and we have space, we’re going to let him in,” Riggs-Cook said.
Meanwhile, the schools’ plans to open a high school are on hold. Charter Schools USA announced earlier this month its planned high school will not be built in time for the 2017-18 school year, when it was poised to accept about 175 of the schools’ soon-to-be eighth-graders.
BESE has given conditional approval for the high school. But ongoing litigation filed by the Iberville Parish School Board and the Louisiana Association of Educators — the parent group to the Lafayette association — is causing a roadblock for the project, Charter Schools USA officials have said.
The lawsuit seeks to halt funding to state-approved charter schools.
The state Department of Education said it is seeking more performance data from charter schools before greenlighting any more state-approved charters, according to Charter Schools USA officials.
Riggs-Cook said she’s confident the school will be built as planned, although on a delayed schedule.
The fate of another two proposed charter schools will be decided Tuesday by the Lafayette Parish School Board, which has rejected all three existing charter schools — including Willow Charter Academy, operated by the Michigan-based National Heritage Academies, and its proposed Broussard school that’s stalled in development.
Athlos Academy of Lafayette would be a K-8 school operated by an Idaho-based company, and Jefferson Chamber Foundation Academy would be a high school geared toward students at risk of dropping out and would be operated by a group in Jefferson Parish.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.