East Brunswick Charter School expansion is a minus for HP School budget, says HP Council

Could an organization in East Brunswick affect the property tax bills of Highland Park residents?

On Tuesday night, Highland Park Borough Council members overwhelmingly agreed that the answer could be yes – if the new organization were a charter school. Council members authorized a letter to New Jersey Commissioner of Education David C. Hespe to express opposition to the expansion of a charter school in East Brunswick. Hatikvah International Academy Charter School on Dec. 1, 2014, asked to increase the number of students in its elementary grades, and to begin adding a middle school.

Charter schools receive their funding from the school districts where their attending students reside, regardless of where the charter school is located. Even though schools are outside the authority of a municipal government, council members felt the situation warranted their input, because the school portion of the property tax bill makes up the majority of the property owner’s tax bill relative to the municipal and county government portions.

“It still affects the taxes of our town,” Council President Susan Welkovits said after the council meeting. “The tax bill comes in an envelope addressed the Borough of Highland Park. We feel a responsibility to at least support our schools in these efforts.”

Officials from Hatikvah could not be reached for comment Tuesday night, but Rick Pressler, interim chief executive officer and president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, said the expansion would let more students find the benefit of a Hatikvah education.

“I am glad to see the school expanding and providing more opportunities for families to access its unique program,” said Mr. Pressler. “The New Jersey Charter Schools Association absolutely supports Hatikvah’s request for an expansion. Part of that process is that the commissioner is required to study the financial impact on districts that will be affected.”

Hatikvah International Academy Charter School opened in September 2010 as a partial-immersion Hebrew language and culture study public charter school. The school now runs from kindergarten through fifth grade, with a total enrollment of 300.

Enrollment at charter schools is determined by a lottery. Schools must give preference to students from their local home district when it comes to enrollment; In Hatikvah’s case, East Brunswick is the local district. But once local demand has been satisfied, charter schools may enroll any interested student who qualifies for a free public education in New Jersey.

Council members on Tuedsay night claimed that Hatikvah receives students from 20 districts other than East Brunswick, including 21 students from Highland Park alone. Those numbers could not be confirmed independently, but council members contend that if the charter school increases its elementary school enrollment, its Highland Park constituency would grow.

Charter schools are funded on a simple fiscal principle: the money follows the student. State law stipulates that the sending district sends 90 percent of its per-pupil spending to the charter school receiving the child, for each child enrolled at the charter school. In the case of Highland Park, that works out to about $15,000 per child.

“Imagine six children leave Highland Park to go to a charter school,” said Ms. Welkovits. “How much does that add up to? Six kids leave. That’s $90,000. I don’t know what kind of benefits a teacher gets, but that’s close to the salary and benefits of one teacher.”

In the case of Hatikvah, the Highland Park School District is projected to send $309,000 this year. Raising taxes to offset that loss of funding would use up more than two-thirds of the State mandated two percent cap in place on school budget increases. Although student enrollment may change year to year, it is not easy for a school district to lower expenses when a group of students leaves. Schools have many fixed costs like building maintenance and staff salaries that cannot be changed year to year to match student enrollment.

“This is the same argument we’ve been hearing from Highland Park since 1997,” said Mr. Pressler, in reference to the year the Board of Education sued to prevent Greater Brunswick Charter School from opening. That charter school names Highland Park as one of its founding districts, along with New Brunswick and Edison.

“While I understand their concern, I think they’re overstating their case,” he said. “The money is being used to educate Highland Park students who have a right to this excellent educational opportunity.”

But for her part, Ms. Welkovits felt that as long as funding for charter schools comes from the public coffers of school districts like Highland Park, the funding mechanism will continue to be a problem.

“I’m just telling you what I see, as a long-term resident, as a parent, as a taxpayer, as a council member,” said Ms. Welkovits. “This is how I’m following that money, and I believe it’s got a very devastating effect on our public schools.”

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