The following letter addresses some community questions Dr. Trani received in the midst of our budget uncertainty. Please click here to download the letter as a PDF file.
As we continue to investigate all available means to overcome this massive budget shortfall, creative thinking from our school community is more important than ever in helping Corbett School District preserve our success. To this end, a recent post on a community forum in response to our current budget crisis wondered if we might be able to replace our current charter school with out of district tuition paying students. This post represents the type of out-of-the-box perspective that best personifies the partnership between the district and the school community and how very much we rely on the passion and commitment of school families. I really appreciate the final line in this specific post where the author points out that, “If other districts granted these inter-district transfer requests we wouldn’t have this problem.”
How We Got Here
It is good to remember that the creation of Corbett Charter School followed closely the decision by our neighboring districts to totally stop or dramatically curtail all inter-district transfer requests. At the time almost 1/4th of our student body attended Corbett via the inter-district transfer process. The loss of those students most likely would have resulted in the loss of nearly half of all of the teachers in the district.
Had the inter-district process not been changed by the other districts it is likely that Corbett Charter School would never have been created. If we imagine that the Charter School had not been created, that the inter-district transfer policies of the neighboring districts had not changed, and that an additional 140 or so students had been allowed to transfer up the hill, we would still be facing this massive budget shortfall. If all of the current charter school students had been allowed to be interdistrict students we would still be looking at the same type of dramatic shortfall in funding for next year. Unfortunately, the inter-district transfer process has changed, and that change highlighted how beholden Corbett School District was to our neighbors.
All of the inter-district transfer policy discussion aside, it is worth examining how charging tuition to attend Corbett Schools could effect our bottom line. In the original community forum post, the author points out that Riverdale School District and Lake Oswego School District both allow out of district students to attend their district if they pay tuition. It’s important to note that Corbett School District also allows out of district students to enroll if they pay tuition.
Corbett has allowed out of district people to pay to tuition in order to attend for at least the last seven years. In my role as principal, and now as superintendent, I have advised literally hundreds of out of district families about this opportunity. The demand for Corbett Charter School is far greater than its capacity; due to this fact I field calls from people weekly asking how they can get into Corbett since they did not get into the Charter. In seven years, with hundreds of people inquiring about the tuition option to enter Corbett, we have only had one student take advantage of our out of district tuition option.
While Corbett allows out of district families to pay tuition –like Riverdale and Lake Oswego– the similarities between the three districts and their surrounding communities stops there. It’s important to look at other variables when considering the viability of tuition-paying students at the three schools.
Riverdale and Lake Oswego school districts are situated in one of, if not the, most affluent areas in our state, and their surrounding neighboring districts subsequently also reflect relatively high affluence. Alook at free and reduced lunch rates in those two districts reveals rates of 8% for Lake Oswego and <
5% for Riverdale. Corbett, by comparison, has a free and reduced lunch rate of over 20%, with some years closer to 25%. But Corbett’s free and reduced lunch rate really does not matter as much as the areas where our out of district students come from. Gresham and Oregon Trail School districts have
free and reduced lunch rates of 38% and Reynolds School District has a free and reduced lunch rates of 57%. In short, the primary communities from which our out of district students attend have between 5 and 11 times more poor families than Lake Oswego or Riverdale.
Another way to look at the dramatic differences in the communities is to look at the percentage of households that make over 100K per year. In Corbett 11% of all families make more than 100K per year: this is less than half of the 23% of families in Riverdale who make more than 100K, and three times less than the 33% of families in Lake Oswego who make more than 100K. Oregon trail has 15%
of their families who make more than 100K, Gresham only has 12%, while Reynolds is even further
behind, with only 9% of their families making more than 100K per year. In light of these dramatic differences in the communities from which we might attract people willing to pay thousands of dollars per year to attend a public school, it seems reasonable that in the last seven years we have only had one family ever pay tuition. (Most of this information is available on the Chalkboard Project’s Open Books page.)
Minding the Gap
It seems unlikely, given the demographics of our neighbors, that tuition paying students would ever fill the gap currently being filled by the Charter school, especially when you consider how many tuition paying students it would take to fill the gap.
Currently, our tuition rate has been set by the board at $10,000 per year. This is less than Riverdale’s rate but more than Lake Oswego’s. Our rate used to be several thousand dollars less than where it is currently set, and still no families took advantage of the tuition option.
The reason our tuition is set at $10,000 is because it is illegal for us to charge less than what we spend per in-district student. The most recent data on the Chalkboard Project’s open books has our total per pupil spending at $8626 per year. IF, for example, we only charged $1 per year for tuition local residents could sue the district for subsidizing out of district tuition students with in-district student dollars. Our legal council tells us that we have to charge for tuition at least what we spend on indistrict students. Rather than try to guess exactly what we will spend in a given year on a per -student basis, the board set a figure that clearly is more than what we currently spend on in-district students. (Some districts, interpret this requirement as meaning you only must charge what you get per student from the state. Lake Oswego is probably one of those districts as their tuition is only $6500. But given the sensitive nature of spending money in Corbett Schools relative to out of district students it is far
more prudent to take a conservative approach rather than to risk a costly law suit.)
In the community post, the author calculates how many out of district tuition paying students we would need to attract in order to not have to depend on the Charter School. Essentially the question is “Couldn’t we attract a fewer number of tuition students and not have to have so many Charter students?”
By the Numbers
For sake of argument lets say the School Board ignored the advice of the district’s legal council and lowered the tuition rate to $6140 per student per year, a figure that originally appeared in the online forum. If the Charter School currently contributes $430K per year to the district (it is actually
higher than this now with their additional contributions to support music), it would take 70 tuition paying students to cover those dollars. However, those 70 students would also need to be educated, and, as all of the Charter School teachers would be gone in this scenario, we would have to hire some
At 30 students per classroom, these 70 students would require 2.33 more teachers than we currently have on staff. Those 2.33 teachers and their classrooms would cost an additional $200K per year, if they were average teachers with regard to salary and classroom supply needs. This would
require another 33 tuition paying students to pay for the 2.33 newly hired teachers. But those 33 kids would also need to be taught, which would require another teacher, bringing the total teachers we would need to hire to 3.33, who would cost another 86K per year, if they were an average-cost teacher
with average classroom supply needs. To cover that 86K we would need another 14 students. Lets just assume we could absorb those last 14 students without adding more staff.
Now, our total of tuition paying students to make up for what the charter is currently giving the district is 70 + 33 + 14, for a total of 117 tuition paying students, whose families can afford $6140 per year, per student.
Hidden Savings: Charter Teachers Teaching All
It seems unlikely that we would ever attract 117 tuition paying students, particularly when you consider that, in the scenario we’ve outlined thus far, Corbett High School would no longer have any teacher teaching math above Algebra two, three fourths of all the study halls would be gone, no one would be
left to teach sophomore English or social studies, five-sevenths of all of the junior and senior English sections would be gone, and there would not be enough foreign language FTE left in the building to teach more than two years of Spanish to any student.
At issue here, is that without Charter teachers in the high school the district would need to hire more staff just to offer a full four years of instruction to its own students. If Mr. Swanson, Mrs. Ducey, Mrs. Hedger, Mrs. Swanson, Mr. Robertson, and Mr. Dunton suddenly were gone where would the two-thirds of all of the in district students go who regularly fill their rooms every day?
To calculate this part of the math problem we have to assume that two of the six high school charter teachers could be discounted, as one-third of the high school students are charter. But that still leaves four teachers to be replaced. Earlier in this analysis, we had hired 3.33 new teachers to accommodate the loss of Charter rent and the instructional burden of the tuition paying students. Let’s say that 1.33 of those teachers went to the high school. That still leaves 2.66 more teachers to hire, and we are back to looking for more tuition paying students. To hire 2.66 more average-cost high school teachers, with average supply costs, we would need to raise another $229 K in funding and our only source would be to attract even more tuition paying students. In fact, it would take 37 more tuition students to make up for that $229K. But, once again
those 37 kids represent a requirement to educate. To bring this analysis to an end lets pretend we could hire just one more teacher to educate the last 37 kids, which would cost 86K more, and require 14 more tuition paying students.
Now, our grand total of tuition paying kids is the 117 from earlier + 37 + 14 = 168. That is a big number, especially when you consider that after speaking to a central office administrator from Riverdale this week I learned that they only have 101.5 tuition students. She cautioned me that it had taken years and years to establish a culture that included this many tuition paying students and that it
would not be reasonable to expect that you could come anywhere near that number in one year or even multiple years. The likelihood of Corbett attracting more tuition students than Riverdale School District is probably fairly low; not due to the difference in academic methodologies of the schools, but simply due to economics and geography.
None of this means we should not continue to encourage people to consider the tuition option for Corbett. Indeed, we will!
Bottom Line: Learn From Your Neighbors
In closing, there is one page out of the Riverdale playbook I am hoping friends of Corbett Schools will adopt. Each year, the Riverdale Education Foundation donates more than 11% of thedistrict’s entire operating budget to the school. This year they estimate they will donate $750K above and beyond any construction bonds, or operating levies Riverdale residents are currently paying for. As I pointed out earlier, Corbett IS NOT Riverdale so an annual gift of $750 K seems lofty. However, currently concerned citizens are beginning investigations into creating an endowment fund to help support the Corbett School.
The most recent election results tell us that more than 600 Corbett residents cast their vote to tax themselves at an average of about $500 per year. That represents $300K of potential endowment funding. If those dollars were placed in a fund where half of it was given to the school for operating expenses each year and the other half was placed in an endowment fund each year, in short order Corbett really could compete with the Riverdale Foundation. Like Riverdale, we are a small and nimble district that can immediately benefit from a foundation. Conversely, many large districts (like Portland Public Schools) mandate that one-third of the money raised by individual school foundations be shared with the overseeing district foundation. At Corbett, 100% of a foundation’s funds would go to Corbett Schools.
If you are interested in being part of the group that investigates this possibility, or if you just want to donate to the fund, drop me an email or give me a call! And for those continuing to invest their own personal time in vetting potential out-of-the-box solutions to our funding issues, please continue to bring your ideas into the public domain so we may all benefit from your vigor and desire to make a
Yours in education,