A new charter school will open up in the fall — or maybe next year — with the capacity for almost 1,000 students in a yet-to-be determined location in Clark County.
That’s the kind of decision, made Friday by the Nevada State Public Charter Authority Board, that makes tracking charter school enrollment a logistical nightmare for the Clark County School District.
Earlier this year, amid budget cuts to address a deficit of about $60 million, the Clark County School District issued a statement saying 1,400 more students enrolled in a charter school than projected. The higher-than-expected charter school enrollment cost the district more than $9 million in lost funding.
But charters are public schools and are approved in public meetings, which led some to question why the district wasn’t able to anticipate the shortfall.
“We have a public process for approving any new school or any expansion of more than 10 percent,” said Patrick Gavin, the state charter authority’s acting director. “Those are held at a public meeting where we provide on the record as part of the support materials the grade-by-grade projections for each school and each campus.”
Statewide, four new charter schools opened this year, two in Clark and two in Northern Nevada, Gavin said. Existing charters likely also grew their enrollment at the expense of the district. In the 2016-17 year, 30,597 students attended a charter school in Nevada, state data show. That’s less than 10 percent of the district’s 320,523 students that year.
The authority’s action at Friday’s meeting, which included giving American Leadership Academy the opportunity to open either in fall 2018 or fall 2019, depending on how quickly organizers can secure a location, demonstrates how variables can create a planning problem for district officials.
“We’re trying our best, but some of it is hit and miss on what we can find and what we can calculate,” said Rick Baldwin, CCSD’s director of demographics, zoning and geographic information systems.
Among other duties, Baldwin’s 10-person department looks at the district’s boundaries, projects upcoming enrollments and tries to track new schools coming on line outside the system, either charters or private schools.
The question of location is particularly important, especially as schools take more responsibilities for their own budgets through the state-mandated Clark County School District reorganization. Projected budgets for the 2018-19 year will be sent to schools in January and will include a student projection.
If Baldwin knows a charter is opening, historical data can tell him which schools will likely be affected and that can be factored into the enrollment projections. But sometimes, as in the case of American Leadership Academy, it’s not possible to predict the effects because he doesn’t know where the school will be located or when it will open.
“It’s very challenging for us,” he said.
Baldwin’s department also monitors business licenses issued by municipalities to track where charters are going to open, but it’s an imperfect process he said.
When fewer students enroll than expected, it can affect staffing and programming at the schools. In some cases, teachers and other employees can be “surplused” to another school. In worst-case scenarios, positions are eliminated.
Charters in Clark County receive the $5,700 per pupil funding from the state’s Distributive School Account. This year, school district officials said the students who unexpectedly enrolled in charters instead of public schools cost them $8 million in DSA funding.
State law also says Clark County students who enroll in a charter have the right to certain local funds raised outside the Distributive School Account. The state withholds that money from Clark County’s per-pupil payment and sends it to the charters instead.
That amount was $1,023 per student this year, resulting in another $1.4 million revenue loss that district officials weren’t expecting from the unexpected charter enrollments. All told, the deduction for all students living in Clark and attending charters totaled $4 million for the year, district officials said.
Earlier this month, the school board finalized its 2017-18 budget by approving another $25 million in cuts to eliminate the deficit.
Attempt at legislative fix
The issue of planning for charter school impacts is not new for the Clark County School District.
In 2017, officials proposed legislation that they say would have allowed for better tracking to alleviate the issue. But the legislation was perceived as an attempt by the district to force charters to locate in areas amendable to the district, and it did not pass.