In a tough year, Northfield-area charter schools take extra hit


“It’s a considerable challenge,” says Simon Tyler, director of the Northfield School of Arts and Technology (ARTech). “We’re going to need to borrow money,” adds Nalani McCutcheon, the executive director of the Cannon River STEM School in Faribault. 

In interviews last week, these two local charter school directors spoke about the challenges they faced following Gov. Pawlenty’s decision earlier this year to hold back 27.5 percent of Minnesota schools’ 2009 budgets, not paying that amount until 2010, to help balance the state’s 2009 budget.

While the hold back is a hardship for all public schools around the state, charter schools in particular face unique challenges, both directors said.

Fund-raising options for charter schools are more limited than for public schools because charter schools use “open enrollment,” which allows students to attend schools outside of the school districts in which they live.

As a result, “we don’t have that tax base that a traditional district does,” Tyler said. “We we can’t enact levies or bonds. Because of the recession it’s a tough time to go to your community for that, but it’s an option [traditional public schools] have.”

The basics

Charter schools also don’t have access to the low-interest loan rates that traditional public school districts typically enjoy, McCutcheon said.

“We have to go out and find traditional borrowing opportunities,” McCutcheon said. “For us, our local bank is our banker. We’ll pay the market loan rates, as opposed to a public school. The Faribault public schools will be able to go out, should they need it, and get lower-interest loans.”

The Cannon River STEM School opened just this year.

“With a new charter school, the state does give you some start-up funds,” McCutcheon said. “But generally speaking, as a brand new school, we have to purchase everything from scratch, so start-up funds really just help us get the basics going.”

“We’ll still have the same issues as other charter schools or public schools, in the spring,” she added. “We’re going to need a line of credit.”

Pay freeze

Tyler, too, will be looking to take out loans in order to keep up ARTech‘s cash flow.

“We’re protecting our program as much as we can,” he said. “The quality of the program is the most important piece. If we don’t provide a quality program, we won’t get the enrollment. Enrollment drives the revenue.”

But cuts will have to be made. “It’s a lot of sacrifice in the program for the staff who work here,” Tyler said. “We had a pay freeze this past year. The staff are taking on more responsibilities throughout the school in order to save the school money, without being compensated for that work.”

ARTech has also had to implement “a lot of internal controls, for things like our meal program. We’re very careful not to let families run up a deficit in their meal balance, because we can’t afford to carry that,” Tyler said.

For an upcoming weeklong poetry artist-in-residence program, ARTech staff and students worked together to write a grant, and bagged groceries at Econofoods to raise money.

Challenging times

The biggest visible impact in the classrooms of her school, McCutcheon says, are the things that will have to be put off.

“There are going to be, perhaps, additional books that we might like to have, that now we’re going to wait on,” she said. “There may be field trip opportunities that we have to defer.”

But challenging economic times have also brought good things to her school, McCutcheon believes.

“Parents feel it’s part of our role to make sure that this school thrives,” she said. “I’ve had a number of parents who have said, you know, we’re laid off. What do you need here? I can come in and I can help. I can build stuff. I can put coat hooks up. Those are great gifts. Those are gifts we wouldn’t necessarily have if we didn’t have an economic downturn.”

Cool things

Ultimately, McCutcheon says, the value of a school is not measured in its access to expensive educational tools.

“If I’ve got great teachers in the classroom-and I do have great teachers in the classroom-there’s going to be wonderful learning that happens. And it’s not going to matter one iota if there’s a Smart Board in the classroom, or if there are whiteboards, or if they’ve got a computer in the classroom. Because really, the magic of education is, it really is all about the classroom.”

“That’s not to make light of the fact that this is a painful time for many people,” she adds. “But I do think that in the whole system dynamic, when the going gets tough, that’s when people band together and actually do some pretty cool things.

“The communities that are able to do that well are the ones that thrive. And my intention is that this will be one that thrives.”

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