GOODING • It was a dream come true for Deby Infanger when North Valley Academy opened in 2008.
The charter school has been a boon to its students, the co-founder said, because they are educated in an environment of American patriotism and mutual respect. And the school gives parents an alternative for their children’s education, she said.
“Our goal is to create patriotic, educated leaders,” she said.
But like any school, it needs money to operate.
North Valley Academy, as with Idaho’s other charter schools, will now get help with its monthly building and maintenance bills thanks to a new state law. Beginning next school year, House Bill 206 will appropriate $1.4 million for facilities costs among 40 charter schools. Each school’s allotment depends on its enrollment numbers.
Previously, charter schools received no state help for their buildings.
Proponents say the funding will help level the playing field for the state’s nontraditional schools. On the flip side, Idaho’s traditional public schools might feel the crunch even more than they do now, said Penni Cyr, executive director of the Idaho Education Association.
“What it does is divert money from traditional schools without any new money from the state,” she said. “All schools, both traditional and charter, are struggling financially.”
Like traditional public schools, charter schools have been hit by funding cuts in recent years. Infanger’s school has around 250 students, she said, which means under the new legislation the school will receive roughly $28,000, or $112 per student.
“It isn’t going to be a large amount of money,” she said. “One of the drawbacks is that we have to pay an authorizer.”
That comes from a second new law, House Bill 221, which expands the number of organizations that are permitted to function as “authorizing agents” of charter schools. The bill also will require charter schools to re-apply for their charter authorization every five years, and require the contracts between charter schools and their authorizing agents to be reviewed on an annual basis. The requirements could amount to additional costs for charters, Infanger said.
“As a charter we do not receive property taxes. We worked with the local school district to find a building and received private funding to buy it,” Infanger said, adding that the school has to pay its mortgage out of its current maintenance fees. “I just wish we didn’t have to take money away from charter funds to pay an authorizer.”
Heritage Academy in Jerome has roughly 180 students. Teresa Berry, a secretary for the school, said things are tight but a good business manager and frugal principal help. Still, she said, the school has had to cut back on a few things such as a new dishwasher for its kitchen, so any extra money will help.
“It helps. Every bit helps,” said Thad Biggers, head of schools at Xavier Charter School in Twin Falls.
Xavier will receive somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000, he said. But a portion of that goes back to the school’s authorizer, the Charter School Commission.
Biggers did not know exactly what building and maintenance purposes the school would use the money for — “we’re just starting the budget process for next year,” he said.
One thing he’s concerned about is the source of the money, the general education fund.
“It could look like it’s we (charter schools) versus they (traditional schools). Budgets are tight for everyone,” he said. “But remember, we can’t run a levy election.”
The Idaho Education Association opposed the legislation, Cyr said.
“When charter schools are commissioned they understand they’re an alternative to traditional schools, so there are trade-offs,” she said. “Because of some of those trade-offs, they can’t hold bond elections. ... But at the same time public charter schools can receive funds that get diverted from traditional public schools. ... So it’s possible this bill could create funding challenges for public schools.”
Infanger said she hates to see any school struggle, charter or traditional. Despite current challenges, however, she believes good things are in store for her school. The group plans to open a second charter school this fall with the same American heritage theme, she said, this time in Idaho Falls.
“It’s a great time to come up with alternatives for parents,” she said. “A lot of people are interested in America’s heritage. ... We’re small and are going to stay small.”