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Education Bill Boosts Juneau Community Charter School

By | May 8, 2014 - 3:12 pm

The Juneau Community Charter School wants to use part of the additional funding to improve its building. The school leases one and a half floors of commercial space downtown. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The Juneau Community Charter School wants to use part of the additional funding to improve its building. The school leases one and a half floors of commercial space downtown. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The Juneau Community Charter School is getting a 56 percent increase to its budget through an upcoming change in state law.

New mandates in House Bill 278 give charter schools more parity with other public schools.

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The Juneau Community Charter School opened in 1997 with 40 students in first to fourth grade. Since then, the school has grown. It now has 110 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Prior to the Alaska Legislature passing House Bill 278, the projected budget for the Juneau Community Charter School was close to a million dollars. Now, the school is looking at a budget of more than one and a half million dollars.

HB278 increases state funding for charter schools of a certain size. Of the 27 charter schools in the state, this only affects two – Juneau Community Charter School and Homer’s Fireweed Academy in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

Every Tuesday, the kindergarten and first grade students go on a nature hike. (Photo by Lisa Phu)

Every Tuesday, the kindergarten and first grade students go on a nature hike. (Photo by Lisa Phu)

“In the past a school would’ve had to have been 150 students to get the same level of funding as many of the other schools in the state that are not charters,” says state deputy education commissioner Les Morse. “And now it allows that school to start off at 75 students and still get the funding equitable to other schools.”

Under HB278, in addition to state money, school districts will be mandated to support charter schools with local government funds. Some districts were already doing this; some weren’t.

“In the past, we’ve only passed on money that we received from the state for the Juneau Community Charter School,” says David Means, director of administrative services for the Juneau School District. “Under HB278, because we have a local match from the City and Borough of Juneau over and above our state money, we have to pass on a share of that money onto the Juneau Community Charter School as well.”

This accounts for about $300,000 of the charter school’s new money, which would otherwise go to other district schools.

“I think we want to try to keep our education dollars as equitable as possible among all of our students, whether they’re charter school students or students in one of our regular traditional schools,” Means says.

Matt Jones is a charter school parent and vice president of the committee that manages the school.

“At this point we’re now on the same footing as all the other neighborhood schools in the district. Whereas we’ve been operating for the last 15 years on significantly lower funding than most schools do, about 30 percent less than most schools,” he says.

Jones is also the treasurer of the committee. He says half the additional funding will likely go toward new staff – a facilitating teacher, a special education teacher, and a paraeducator or reading specialist.

Another big issue is the school building. The charter school leases one and a half floors of a commercial building. It’s located downtown, walking distance to libraries, museums and trails, but Jones says the space isn’t set up for students and classrooms.

There are 23 students in the combined class of kindergarten and first grade. The Juneau Community Charter School has a total of 110 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

There are 23 students in the combined class of kindergarten and first grade. The Juneau Community Charter School has a total of 110 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“There’s not a lot of space in the halls for students and for lockers and things like that. There’s no gymnasium. There’s basically no room outside the main classroom area that we rent and we’re spread out across a couple of floors in this building that has other tenants in it,” Jones says.

Instead of a cafeteria, the charter school serves lunch in a narrow hallway. The students go to the Capital Park playground because they don’t have their own. The school’s facade is discolored and chipping.

Jones says ultimately they’d like to move into a new space, potentially leasing from the school district. That would keep the money in the district instead of going to a private company. In the meantime, Jones says they’ll spend a little to improve the space they’re in now.

HB278 also requires school districts provide or pay for charter school students’ transportation and offer extra classroom space to charter schools first.

The bill provides a one time, $500 per student grant for new charter schools and limits what districts can charge for administrative services. It also establishes an appeal process for charters that don’t get approved by the local school board.

Deputy education commissioner Morse says HB278 is the biggest change to the charter school law since it was created in 1995.

“In some communities, certainly a charter would not have made sense and now with some of these structural changes, it could make sense and it could give new opportunities for kids and families,” Morse says.

The governor is expected to sign HB278 into law.

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