Charter schools answer to funding shortages? - Bitterroot Star (2024)

by John Dowd

After resounding defeats last year, the school districts of Ravalli County decided not to run any levies this year. According to school officials, they decided not to even attempt any this year based on significant public disinterest last year, where all the attempted levies failed. Though this may be to the chagrin of many schools in the valley, the issue may run deeper, according to Florence-Carlton School Superintendent, Todd Fisk, and he is not alone.

“None of them passed, by a landslide,” said Fisk about the levy attempts last year. In fact, most schools lost by at least 60% against, often more. However, Fisk noted that there is a dire need in every single school district in the valley, and across the country, for more funding. With increasing costs of everything, including simple daily operation, districts are feeling the hurt.

In the Florence-Carlton district alone, costs were cut by nearly $450,000 in trying to keep up over the last year. According to Fisk, the only place these cuts could come from were security, classes, technology and inevitably, staff.

However, Fisk added that these are all items that many in the public think are already underfunded. With higher nationwide concern regarding things like a heightened sense of violence in schools, higher workloads on individual teachers, schools falling behind other countries in technology courses and fewer teachers, the issue, according to Fisk, seems dire.

When asked about future sustainability, Fisk showed concern. Fisk stated that they are looking at a $150,000 increase in staff benefits and raises that they will not be able to meet in his district. Along with other schools, Florence has seen a decrease in enrollment. For him, the breaking point will be letting staff go. Eventually, a “compressing curriculum” and adding more to teacher plates will give way. He wondered how teachers could be expected to work without being paid enough to meet inflation. He also mentioned that the districts are “losing good people” because they cannot offer teachers what they are worth.

Fisk also sees the other side, saying that current times are hard on all the taxpayers, who themselves may not be getting raises either, due to similar issues in all careers. Fisk concluded that all of this is detrimental to youth education, and could lead to a terrible eventuality. That picture could eventually look like extremely overworked, underpaid teachers, teaching many subjects to huge class sizes, without the ability to meet each student at their individual level to maximize what they get out of school. At the current rate, according to Fisk, even if things turn around right now, it could take “years to refill those lost positions,” and to start moving things in a positive direction.

However, there may be a way things can improve right now, and a light at the end of the tunnel, according to Fisk. Many school districts are looking at a unique form of charter school program. Beginning next fall, Corvallis will be one of the first school districts in the valley to try the new program. They will be calling their school, the Corvallis Rise Charter Academy.

According to Corvallis Schools Superintendent, Peter Joseph, these “public charter school programs” are a “great thing for public education.” These programs are stand-alone schools that reach students and their families that may not fit into the traditional public school model. These public charter schools are governed under the public school board of the district in which they reside. However, they will offer a different opportunity path for students, and are funded by their own steam.

According to Joseph, Corvallis is proud to have a nearly 100% graduation rate, which he believes is one of the highest in the nation. However, he also stated that they have found that only about 40% will go on to college. For Corvallis, part of their drive is to go after that 60% to help them go further in life, and help those who may benefit more from the individualized programs offered by a charter school.

The program in Corvallis will offer more choice to student families as far as classes. They will offer distance learning that allows students to focus on experience based learning, employing guest speakers and field trips, along with remote learning. There will also be a heavy emphasis on career “experiential learning.”

This experience-based learning will employ help from local businesses, and Corvallis School District is currently working with Bitterroot Health to add “career exposure.” They have similar prospects with the U.S. Forest Service, the Bitterroot Valley Military Program, and businesses in the construction, farming and ranching fields, local law enforcement agencies and more. These will be through the school’s new “Pathways” program.

Corvallis’ charter program will focus a lot on exposure for younger students as well as immersion into careers for older students. Along the way, there will be extensive aptitude and personality testing to help students determine their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the directions they may want to go. Corvallis hopes to individualize every part of the experience.

The question is how can these programs help with the funding shortage, while offering new and unique opportunities to students. According to the Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) website, there has already been a concerted effort to go this direction, adding public charter schools connected to existing public schools. According to them, this will not cost districts more money to run, as they are operated within the district in a similar way to regular public schools.

These schools are also funded by enrollment, and are eligible to receive additional funding. The MCPS site addresses the concerns Fisk mentioned regarding staff and funding, stating, “Budget savings from reductions in staffing and other areas are not being used to fund MCPS charter schools. In other words, the district is not making the decision to reduce positions or programs in order to establish charter schools. On the contrary, establishing charter schools is a way to increase funding, create more opportunities for teaching positions and create more opportunities for students. Charter schools may actually help bring in more funding for our district and save the jobs of MCPS employees who are currently facing layoffs.”

According to Joseph, the special funding these charter schools gain access to allows the district to run the charter school independently, by hiring new staff positions, constructing learning centers, etc. These schools also allow independent enrollment, which raises the total enrollment number for a school district, entitling the districts to more funding from the state.

In addition to the extra funding these kinds of schools can give districts access to, Joseph mentioned that another “huge byproduct is bringing together the community.” One of the major determining factors on how well these charter schools operate, and the kinds of programming they can offer, is how they resonate with a community.

According to Joseph, their program is already resonating extremely well with their community. So well that they already have 220 students enrolled into the program, which far exceeds the minimum to be considered an operational charter school. Along with the higher enrollment, the community is also doing a lot to help provide pathway opportunities, such as the ones mentioned before.

“We worked hard to reach out to our community. We worked really really hard,” said Joseph. As a result, the community has responded with a host of career educational opportunities. According to Joseph, it really has been “good grass-roots community development,” in action. There have already been “opportunities at a level I thought would take two to three years or more,” said Joseph.

Joseph believes every community is different and will have different educational needs for their students. He says these charter school programs are truly a “blessing and a bonus for education and for these kids,” and will allow each district to customize their charter programs to fit their needs.

To make all this happen, Joseph said, “it was a group effort. It took everybody moving in the same direction for it to be this successful.”

As for whether these programs will be effective enough to turn the tide back into the favor of student education and success, only time will tell.

For more information on the new Corvallis program, interested parties can contact the school at (406) 961-4211. Hamilton may also have their own charter school program soon as well.

Charter schools answer to funding shortages? - Bitterroot Star (2024)
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