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Charlotte Observer: Charter Schools' Spending Varies

Per-pupil spending among Mecklenburg-area charter schools varied widely last year, with a handful reporting that they spent significantly less in local money than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools forwarded to them. Total spending ranged from $6,194 at Queens Grant, a Mint Hill school run by a for-profit chain, to $15,157 at Kennedy Charter in south Charlotte, run by the nonprofit Elon Homes, according to 2010-11 state report cards. The average for CMS was $7,994. The state doesn't calculate spending for individual schools in a district; CMS plans to release its own tallies for 2010-11 when the school board's budget planning begins in January. Charters - publicly funded schools that don't report to local school boards - are attracting new attention since the state legislature lifted the 100-school limit in hopes of increasing innovation and student success. The Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based nonprofit research group, does annual studies of school spending but doesn't include charters. Because of the expected surge in new ones, "that's an issue we're going to have to look at," said President Jo Ann Norris. Some common factors shape per-pupil spending at charters and traditional public schools: Size, grade level, special missions and student need. When CMS did its 2009-10 report, spending ranged from $10,393 per student at Thomasboro Elementary to $4,406 at Ballantyne Elementary. Thomasboro, in west Charlotte, gets extra federal and local aid because most students come from low-income homes. Ballantyne, in the county's southern tip, is more than twice the size, with a low poverty level. Likewise, Mecklenburg's highest-spending charters - Kennedy, Crossroads and KIPP, each spending more than $10,000 per student - cater to at-risk students and have high poverty levels. Those with the lowest spending - Queens Grant, Carolina International and Lake Norman Charter - are located in the suburbs and serve fewer low-income students. Comparing charter-school spending has to take in additional quirks, from unusual grade configurations to greater variety in services to the fact that students can cross county lines. Because charters are public, each school district has to pass along a per-pupil share of the money county commissioners provide. For CMS, that came to $2,121 for each Mecklenburg charter student in 2010-11. The local spending listed in state report cards can be misleading because that category includes everything that's not state and federal money. Private fundraising often bolsters charter budgets. That's the case at Kennedy, which has students in grades K-3 and 6-12. It reported spending $15,157 per student, including $6,465 in "local" money. Elon Homes and Schools for Children, a nonprofit that began as an orphanage in 1907, has always sought donations and grants to provide small classes and other services for at-risk children at Kennedy, said Elon President Fred Grosse. Queens Grant, operated by the Michigan-based National Heritage Academies, reported spending just under $6,200 per pupil last year. The $921 in local per-pupil spending is less than half the allotment from Mecklenburg taxpayers (some students come from nearby counties). The school, in Mecklenburg's southeast suburbs, referred questions to National Heritage, a for-profit chain that operates 71 schools in nine states. Spokesman Joe DiBenedetto said North Carolina's accounting system doesn't factor in "certain services which are provided centrally." Those services added $1,511 per pupil, he said - a total that would put it in the middle of the pack. The real measure of a school comes not from spending but from academic success and parent satisfaction, DiBenedetto said. Queens Grant students pass state exams at rates similar to CMS students. The charter school has about 750 students in grades K-8, DiBenedetto said, with more than twice as many on a waiting list. Carolina International School, a locally run Harrisburg charter with students in K-10, illustrates the financial challenges and advantages that come with independence. The school took a financial hit when a staff member embezzled money in 2007-08, said Principal Mystica Nelmes. "That really set us back," she said. "Now finally we're back in the black." Carolina International, which has a poverty rate below 20 percent, has tapped into parents' enthusiasm - and personal resources - to offset relatively low government spending. Nelmes says parents support the goals of providing foreign-language instruction (students can take Chinese, Spanish or, starting next semester, Hindi) and global connections. When the school decided all students above third grade should have tablets in class, about two-thirds of families bought their own, while the school paid for those who couldn't. Carolina International students - especially the African American and low-income ones - pass state exams at higher rates than their CMS counterparts. "I think we're doing well with what we have," Nelmes said. Copyright 2011 The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.