PARIS — The majority of SAD 17 directors voted Monday night to pay $21,370 of an anticipated $86,000 or more bill to the Maine Connections Academy, but many did so with some reservations.
The bill reflects 11 high school- and one middle school-age students from the SAD 17 school district who chose to enroll in the state’s first virtual charter school, the Maine Connections Academy, according to the bill received Oct. 14 by the district. The number includes five students who previously were home-schooled.
Superintendent Rick Colpitts said he is obligated by law to pay the bill and has only two choices — to pay out of the contingency fund or to take it out of the regular budget by cutting elsewhere. Either way, the bill has to be paid, he said.
“Our hands are tied,” said Board of Directors Chairman Ron Kugell, who called for action to convince the state legislature to come up with a different funding method to pay for charter schools.
The virtual school is funded through the enrolling students’ home school districts. Next year, the state will reimburse the SAD 17 district 46 percent of its costs for local students enrolled in charter school this year.
School officials say the money will be taken out of the contingency fund because in June, when the SAD 17 budget was approved, there was no way of knowing how many, if any, SAD 17 students would attend the online charter school. The virtual school is funded through the enrolling students’ home school districts.
Many school board members expressed concern about the escalating costs and the uncertainly of how to budget for it each year.
Last month, the board was told SAD 17 officials expected to pay for seven students whom they knew had chosen to attend the Maine Connections Academy this year. The additional five home-schooled students were discovered when the bill was received.
In 2011, Gov. Paul R. LePage signed legislation making Maine the 41st state to allow charter schools and establishing the seven-member commission that can authorize up to 10 public charter schools through June 30, 2022. Local school boards can additionally authorize public charter schools.
Critics of the legislation, which has been challenged by a number of groups, including the Maine Superintendent’s Association, say it is unfair to put school districts in financial straights when they have no say over how many students for whom they may have to pay.
Director Barry Patrie of Waterford, who voted against paying the bill, told fellow board members that they should hold off paying until later in the year, when they know the true number of students leaving for charter schools.
Colpitts said one student has already indicated that he or she may be withdrawing from the virtual academy, but it is generally unknown how many will enroll at the beginning of the year. Because the district had no responsibility for home-schooled students, they had no way of knowing the additional five would enroll.
Currently, there are six charter schools, including Cornville Regional Charter School, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley, Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, Fiddlehead School of Arts and Science in Gray, Harpswell Coastal Academy and Maine Connections Academy.
“We have to be realistic that we’re in a competitive business now,” Director Jared Cash said of the six charter schools serving nearly 900 Maine students this year. Of that 900, nearly 300 students from 86 school districts are being served by the new virtual school. An application for another online charter hoping to open next year has now moved forward, according to the Department of Education.
SAD 17 did have one student enrolled last year in a brick-and-mortar charter school — the Fiddlehead School of Arts & Sciences in Gray — but that student chose not to enroll this year, Colpitts said.
The Oxford Hills School District received a $7,424 tuition bill for the student to attend the school last year and already budgeted for that student this year before it knew whether the student would be attending the charter school again.