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Why For Every Dollar CMS Pays Charters, It Can't Make The Same Cut


Mecklenburg County commissioners got a crash course Tuesday in how charter schools are funded.  They heard CMS will likely lose more than $80 million dollars to local charter schools next year.  But if CMS no longer has the expense of educating those students, why is that chalked up as a loss for the district? 

Credit CMS Powerpoint
This example of a real charter just outside of Mecklenburg County pulls students from 24 CMS schools.

  Dennis Covington is the budget director at CMS. He writes a lot of checks to the 25 charter schools in the area.  Another 11 will open next year. CMS brought him in to give commissioners the rundown.  

“I’m going to try to explain how charter school funding works on the state side and the local side,” he said, introducing himself. 

When a CMS student transfers to a charter school, the state shifts the money it would have paid the district to the charter. That comes out to about $5,400 per student. But CMS gets extra help from the county. So by state law, the district must pass that on to the charter as well. That’s about $2,300. 

That may seem like a fair trade off, since CMS has passed the expense of educating that student on to the charter. 

But hold up, says Covington. He gives the example of a real charter school, but not the name since he says he doesn’t want to single out a school. 

The charter has 129 students and is located just outside of Mecklenburg County. It still pulls students from 24 CMS schools.  That means most of those CMS schools are out one or two students and the funding that follows them. 

“There would be no expense reduction to that school for losing one child. We couldn’t cut a teacher. We can’t cut utility bills. We can’t cut a TA, a bus driver. So the cost will remain the same at that school, even though we lost one children,” Covington tells commissioners.    

Imagine a couple of other charters are also pulling a few students from different grades at that school. It’s the same situation. The school can’t easily cut teachers or TAs with those small numbers, but the school has several thousand dollars less to work with. 

Multiply that across the district and that’s what’s got CMS worried, especially as the number of charters continues to surge. 

“Based on this one charter school that affected 24 schools, we will probably make no cost reduction for those kids. But we lost about $300,000 that’s paid directly to the charter school,” estimates Covington. 

That’s just county money. With state money included, that adds up to about $870,000. 

Whether that’s an investment worth making is a whole other question.