Charter schools growing in Sonoma County
Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012 at 5:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 4, 2012 at 3:36 p.m.
Sonoma County is at the forefront of the charter school movement in California with 11 new schools opening this year, second only to massive Los Angeles County Unified with its nearly 660,000 students.
Nearly a quarter -- 23 percent -- of Sonoma County's 70,700 kindergarten-through-12th graders are enrolled in charter schools. Just two years ago, 13 percent of Sonoma County students were in charter schools.
Today, there are 56 campuses working under 51 state-issued charters. Fifteen years ago, there were two charter schools in the county.
The trend reflects districts' efforts to attract students in an increasingly competitive environment and a calculated assessment of how to maximize dwindling state funding for public schools.
In many cases, charter schools can pull in more state funds and with fewer restrictions while also being free of interdistrict transfer rules. Students do not need permission from their home district if they want to attend a charter school -- a key factor as Sonoma County's 40 districts compete for students and the key portion of state funding that is based on enrollment.
"They are trying to use the system to their advantage," said Steve Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education. "I think people are starting to figure out, 'If I can increase my revenue, I'll do it.' I think you'll see more of that as word of mouth of that spreads."
"I don't begrudge them any of it," he said.
The trend is not isolated to Sonoma County. In California, 1,065 charter schools serve 484,000 students -- a 17 percent increase over last year. This fall, 109 charter schools opened to students.
Only one of the 11 charter schools that opened in Sonoma County this school year -- the Santa Rosa French-American Charter School -- is new. The others are traditional public schools that converted existing campuses and enrollments into charter schools.
Most charter schools in Sonoma County are not programs started from scratch, but rather existing schools that applied to the state to convert to a charter.
Two years ago, that move almost guaranteed districts about $250,000 for planning and implementation funds. Those funds have since evaporated and now are available largely only to independent charters that start from scratch.
Still, the financial implications loom large over many districts' decisions.
In Petaluma's Old Adobe District, three of the four campuses converted to charter schools this year. One of those, Sonoma Mountain Charter School, is pursuing a focus on music and performing arts to augment an existing band program for fifth- and sixth-graders.
"Right now, there is no way we can hire a band person; we don't have the funds for it," Principal Katie Mammen said. "We barely have the money to purchase recorders for third-graders."
But because of the financing opportunities available to some charter schools, Mammen has been told by district officials "to dream."
"What we are hoping is next year to hire a band person (who) would not be a classroom teacher so they can spend more time with more students to expand the program," Mammen said.
Old Adobe Superintendent Cindy Pilar said the move to convert three of the four schools in the district to charter operations was both a financial and educational decision.
"When it gets so fiscally desperate, you do these things," she said. "You do whatever you can to provide funding for your kids when you are looking at dramatic cuts. But in our case, it really fit with our education goals for our schools."
Under the plan, Miwok Valley Language Academy will continue to expand the existing Spanish language dual-immersion program while examining ways to broaden language acquisition programs to more students, Pilar said.
Because of the way schools are funded in California, converting to a charter does not necessarily mean more money for every campus or every district, but it made sense for Old Adobe to make the move amid otherwise dire financial circumstances, Pilar said.
"I know that folks believe this is a bit of a shell game. I can understand that feeling," she said. "But on the other hand, we are trying to get as much money as we can for our students. We wish the funding model was different and appropriate and came in a timely way."
Since 2007-08, state revenue to Sonoma County schools has dropped 18 percent. Factor in cost-of-living adjustments that have been withheld or are in the negative in recent years, the net loss surges to 23 percent, said Denise Calvert, deputy superintendent of business services for the Sonoma County Office of Education.
Because charter schools are funded based on a statewide average, some districts that are currently receiving funds at a lower per-pupil rate than the state average can benefit from the move.
But in a system where some get more, others will get less, said Gary Ravani, a retired teacher with Petaluma City Schools and president of the early childhood council of the California Federation of Teachers.
"It's obvious in California the financial pie that is available to be divided for schools is not just a finite thing but a shrinking thing," Ravani said. "It's a zero sum game -- if you are giving more somewhere else in a segregated situation, you are taking more from somewhere else. That is just unavoidable."
The charter school concept has changed dramatically in California since the first charter school opened in the 1993-94 school year. Once a vehicle for teachers or parents to create a unique educational experience unlike what was found on traditional campuses, charters have in many cases become so in name only.
In Rincon Valley School District, where five of the district's eight elementary campuses have been converted to charter schools since 2009-10, keeping schools under the umbrella of the district as so-called dependent charters made financial sense, said Joe Pandolfo, assistant superintendent of business.
"They can still be innovative, but they still have the governance of the board, which is, frankly, generally a good thing," he said. "An independent charter school has very little economy of scale because it has to do everything independently. Maintenance, financial services, construction in the summer, centralized curriculum . . . you are basically on your own."
For Pandolfo, the reasons for converting to a charter were many but a key factor was the continued onslaught of budget cuts.
"If a school district has a choice between considering a conversion charter school and not making cuts, the conversion charter school looks appealing," he said. "That being said, that is not the sole reason you would do it, but it is certainly a consideration."
Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extra credit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @benefield.
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