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The Oregonian, April 20, 2008
Charter schools tend to have drive to survive
By WENDY OWEN
Strong management, frugal spending and parent/community support have been the key to survival for Oregon's oldest charter schools.
"Charter schools are the will and the drive and not taking no for an answer," said Jo Ann Lindenthal, executive director of the Multisensory Learning Academy in Gresham, which opened in 2001.
That sense of optimism pervades Oregon's booming charter school movement, despite a closure rate that is double the national rate. Even if the state's economy enters a recession, leaders of the independent public schools say they'll find a way to survive.
Oregon joined the charter school movement in 1999. State law exempts the schools from many state rules, allowing for innovative education and school choice. Parents select charter schools for their different learning environments, including smaller class sizes, exploratory learning and specialization, such as technical skills. They are open to all students, regardless of school district boundary, and are tuition-free.
There are about 80 charter schools in Oregon, and nine more are expected to open next fall. With about 4,000 charter schools across the United States, Oregon ranks in the top third in the number of charter schools.
The schools receive state funding passed along by their home school districts, which are responsible for oversight and must approve new charter schools. In rare cases, the state Department of Education approves the school. By law, the school district must give at least 80 percent of the roughly $6,000 per-student funds that it gets from the state to K-8 charter schools, and 95 percent to 9-12 schools.
A few districts pass along more than the required minimum to the lower-grade schools. But most K-8 schools receive about $4,600 per student. The home districts keep the balance and face no restrictions on how it can be used.
Charter school leaders said they try to stay within their state-funded budgets for operations without relying on donations, grants and fundraising. Instead, that "soft money" typically goes for "extras" such as field trips, classroom supplies, specialty classes, such as martial arts, artists in residence and a small contingency fund.
"We are definitely very hand to mouth with our budget," said Tara O'Neil, program coordinator for Emerson School in Portland's Pearl District. The school, which specializes in real-world learning experiences, recruits a diverse range of students from across Portland.
Teachers earn less
Charter schools can pay teachers less than regular schools. At some, it can be as little as half of what a licensed teacher would make elsewhere. Fifty percent of charter school teachers must be licensed versus 100 percent in other public schools.
Those salaries lower costs, compared with public schools. But unlike public schools, charter schools often have to pay rent for their buildings.
Emerson School pays below the annual market rate to rent its building, but the $132,000 cost consumes 25 percent of the school's state funding.
But O'Neil said she doesn't believe the K-5 school with about 130 students would ever be forced to close for financial reasons.
"We do a lot of making do," she said.
Despite such optimism, Oregon's charter schools stand out from the national average in the number that closed between 2000 and 2006 -- 20 percent -- compared with 11 percent nationally, according to a study by the Oregon Department of Education.
There is no solid link between the closures and Oregon's last recession in 2001. But state charter schools education specialist Margaret Bates said the high failure rate could be because of many factors.
"I believe some did not have a business plan in place that was reasonable and didn't prepare for a dip in the economy," she said.
A charter school sustainability report by the Oregon Department of Education highlighted financial obligations, such as staffing, building leases and utilities as well as low enrollment as the main factors behind school closures.
Some charter schools are already feeling the pinch from the tightening economy.
"This year, the fuel costs are killing us," said Linda Duman, teacher/administrator of the 49-student rural Lourdes School in Scio, the state's first charter school.
Lourdes has remained in the black over the years with the help of the community and frugal management, Duman said. "I always run my school like a recession could come any time," she said.
Three Rivers Charter School in West Linn relies on its parents for about $186,000 of its $846,000 annual budget. The school also fundraises more than $150,000 a year through an auction. It opened in 2001 and has 100 students.
"When the economy slides, parents don't have the money, and we really feel it," said Katherine Holtgraves, administrator.
The school has a year's worth of donations in the bank, but Holtgraves said she worries about parents losing their jobs during a recession.
When a recession hits, people typically don't eliminate donations, said Bill Harbaugh, a University of Oregon economics professor. They switch to organizations that help the needy. Instead of investing in art or higher education, they give to the Salvation Army.
"The major impact is (charter schools) are going to have to work harder to get donations," he said.
Wendy Owen: 503-294-5969; firstname.lastname@example.org
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