SKOWHEGAN — Some Somerset County school officials, already concerned about area charter schools siphoning students and funding, are raising fresh concerns now that Maine has given the OK to the state’s first virtual school.
Maine Connections Academy, which would be run by Baltimore-based company Learning Connections, can enroll up to 270 students from around the state this year and has the potential to enroll up to 750.
Superintendents in three Somerset County school districts that have lost money because of charter schools said Thursday that they would support a moratorium that prevents virtual charter schools from opening until 2015. The moratorium bill was passed by the Maine Senate on Thursday, but vetoed hours later by Gov. Paul LePage. Legislators aren’t expected to have enough votes to override the veto.
Among the concerns of superintendents in North Anson, Madison and Skowhegan are the high cost their school districts have faced in connection with charter schools in the region, although none have led directly to cuts in programs or staff at district schools.
In 2012, the state’s first two charter schools opened within 20 miles of each other, The Maine Academy for Natural Sciences in Fairfield and the Cornville Regional Charter School.
In the last two years, the three surrounding school districts have lost students as well as local and state funding.
In Maine, districts must finance the education of students in the district who choose charter schools. The charter school gets both state and locally raised money from the school district on a per-pupil basis, usually totaling between $8,000 to $10,000 a student.
“We’ve reduced staff, we’ve reduced programs to help pay for those things,” said Brent Colbry, superintendent of Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54. “That’s the reality of how we pay for charter schools — reduced staff, reduced programs and tax increases.”
The district enrolls 70 students at the Cornville school and 16 at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, on the campus of Good Will-Hinckley. That’s about 3 percent of the total district enrollment of 2,660, according to the Department of Education.
But the addition of the state’s first virtual charter school, which is expected to draw students from around the state, should not draw as many students from a concentrated area, said Roger Brainard, executive director of the Maine Association for Charter Schools, a nonprofit organization that helps establish charter schools in Maine and integrate them into the educational landscape.
“Unfortunately, the two (charter) schools that ended up in the Skowhegan area — that was just bad luck,” said Brainard.
Even so, he said rural areas — like Somerset County — can especially benefit from a virtual school. The advantages of a virtual charter school are similar to that of a traditional charter school, which offers students who might otherwise drop out of school an alternative education, he said.
Virtual learning is a tool of the 21st century that all schools, charter or traditional, should embrace, he said.
“All students need to have access to virtual programs to get the range of what is available to them today,” Brainard said. “Especially in rural areas, it can be very difficult to get access to advanced courses and other opportunities.”
Charter schools are a way to govern virtual schools that give them flexibility they need to operate while also holding them accountable for student achievement, said Brainard. Maine does not have the money to finance a virtual school of its own, a proposal the Legislature is considering with the moratorium, said Brainard.
Such an alternative could offer students in rural areas the advantages of virtual learning, including greater access to digital resources, while allowing school district residents to maintain a say over how the community’s educational dollars are spent, said Ken Coville, superintendent of the North Anson district.
Coville said the district supports a digital learning exchange, in which digital resources would be shared by students, teachers and schools around the state.
The idea has sparked debate over both the financial and educational aspects of virtual learning.
Superintendent Todd LeRoy said he doesn’t anticipate a large number of students enrolling in the online charter school, but said that any changes in charter schools could have an impact on Madison-based School Administrative District 59. He also supports the moratorium, he said.
The district budgeted $300,000 to send students to the two area charter schools this school year.
“Per capita we are the hardest hit. It’s significant,” LeRoy said. “I know Skowhegan loses a lot but when you look at the size of the schools, we pay the most per capita.”
He said he anticipates a slight increase in the number of Madison students enrolling at the two local charter schools, as both reach maximum enrollment capacities this year and the Cornville school adds a grade level.
“They’re doing a really nice job and I have to give them credit for it, but as they move forward I expect them to draw more students,” said LeRoy.
The Skowhegan district has $800,000 earmarked for charter schools in the preliminary 2014-15 budget, about 2 percent of last year’s $32.8 million total budget, said Colbry.
He said he isn’t sure how much interest in the virtual school there will be in the area.
“We talked briefly about it among the school board the other night but I don’t know what parents would be attracted to that. We were most affected by the other charter schools but I don’t have a good feel for what the effect could be. I have nothing to measure it against,” said Colbry.
Meanwhile, Coville said the North Anson district will anticipate raising an additional $90,000 in tax contributions to cover the cost of students enrolling at the new virtual school. The current school budget includes $66,000 in costs for charter schools.
“I just think there’s something missing with an online school. Kids need to around other kids if they’re going to grow up and learn how to be respectful, contributing adults. They need socialization,” said LeRoy.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 firstname.lastname@example.org