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Charter schools may face cuts in aid to pay rent

Cutting staff positions.

That was the biggest concern for charter school leaders when discussing how potential decreases in funds used to help with rent directly would affect their personnel – not just their facilities.

The worry stems from the possibility of schools being awarded up to 20 percent less money this year for lease payments.

“I would have to sit across the table from a P.E. teacher or a nurse and cut their salaries,” said Ray Griffin, head administrator at Turquoise Trail Charter Elementary School in Santa Fe, at a recent Public Education Commission meeting.

Robert Jessen, head learner at Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe, said his students may not be able to get out of portables or the school may not hire more counselors if lease assistance were to go down.

Charter school leaders were sent a memo dated April 6 this year from Jonathan Chamblin, the executive director of the Public School Facilities Authority, that said the maximum amount of money schools can get back for rent “will be adjusted downward up to 20 percent from prior years.”

The consensus among charter leaders was that schools would have to dip into their operational funds to make up for any decrease in lease assistance.

The proposed cuts would affect all charters regardless of whether they are overseen by a school district or the Public Education Commission.

After hearing testimony from charter leaders, the Public Education Commission formally voted last month not to support a reduction in lease assistance.

While the PEC does not control the lease awards, the unanimous vote – with two PEC members absent and Tim Crone abstaining – makes the official position of the PEC known. That’s important because PEC member Gilbert Peralta is also a member of the Public School Capital Outlay Council, which is the entity that ultimately will decide if the lease assistance were to go down.

The council is expected to decide in September what happens next.

Lease assistance reductions have been under discussion by the council in previous years for varying reasons.

Chairman David Abbey said the council reduced lease assistance in 2016 due to some schools not complying with state statute. Abbey said the council later allowed for schools to reach compliance and get their awards adjusted.

But again in 2017 the council considered reducing lease assistance “due to decreased revenue for the public school capital outlay fund,” according to Abbey.

Ultimately, schools pushed back on those proposed cuts, saying they weren’t given enough notice and the council voted not to change lease assistance for the 2017-18 school year.

And while Abbey told the Journal there is increased revenue this year and the council is “not considering lowering the amount of lease assistance for the purpose of reducing spending,” charters may still see a reduction in their lease assistance anyway.

Square-footage assessments

The PSFA conducted an extensive square-footage assessment – for the first time – that showed some schools were over-reporting space that is eligible for lease assistance. And the PSFA says that could result in schools losing some funding.

Chamblin told the Journal that the PSFA has been verifying square-footage data, noting state statute only allows rent help for classrooms – not other space such as bathrooms or hallways.

“It came to our attention that some of the square footage self-reported by the schools wasn’t accurate,” he said, adding he didn’t think it was malicious. Rather, he thought people might not have known what was eligible.

Abbey said the PSFA has estimated schools could lose up to 20 percent as a result of the square-footage corrections, which is about what the council has proposed in previous lease decrease discussions.

“The 20 percent that we’re looking at today is an estimate of staff of how much they think less square footage will reduce awards,” he said. “It is totally coincidental those numbers are the same.”

While the assessment could result in lower lease awards to schools, Abbey insists the assessments happened independently from previous conversations by the Outlay Council to possibly decrease lease assistance.

Matt Pahl, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, said that hasn’t been clear to charters. Schools received Chamblin’s letter saying that up to 20 percent could be cut and then the assessments were completed, with little communication in between.

“Schools have started and it’s still unclear how much is being cut and how,” he said. “They don’t know right now how a cut is going to take place; they just know up to 20 percent is possible.”

Preliminary PSFA square-footage assessments show 82 percent of schools had been overclaiming square footage.

“I do think it is important that the state fund the right amount of square footage,” Abbey said.

But some charters pointed out the assessments initially weren’t accurate.

Jeremy Jones, director of the Taos Charter School, said his and other Taos schools had to correct the square footage the assessor determined, saying the PSFA inspector didn’t consult the administration on what spaces were used for. Jones said he had to plead with the PSFA to come back and remeasure to clarify what rooms were classroom space, which Jones was able to correct.

The PSFA said it didn’t talk to every assessed school but said it has since clarified classroom space with any school that reached out to it.