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Charter schools have stirred national and local debate since the first ones opened in the 1990s.
Supporters claim they provide greater options and promote higher achievement. Opponents claim many charters don’t measure up to those promised achievements, and strain municipal budgets.
The issue arose during a July 10, 2014, "State of the State Debate" between two of the three Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor: Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis and Cumberland Mayor Daniel J. McKee. (State Rep. Frank Ferri, also a candidate, did not participate.)
The focus: The Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy. McKee is the current chairman of the academy’s board.
Mollis, a charter school skeptic, focused on costs, saying, "The per-pupil cost at the mayoral academy far outweighs the per-pupil costs in Cumberland public schools."
Mollis continued: "One of the major issues right now is what’s happening in public education -- that we’re not providing enough funds and resources into our public education system, that entities like the mayoral academies are taking money from our public school system …"
Some background: Charter schools are independently run public schools that are granted greater flexibility in their operations, in return for greater accountability for performance. Mayoral academies are regional charter schools whose boards are chaired by a mayor.
Blackstone Valley Prep was started in 2009 as "an intentionally diverse" network of tuition-free public schools. Chartered by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), Blackstone Valley Prep enrolls students from Central Falls, Cumberland, Lincoln and Pawtucket: There are currently some 1,000 students in grades K-8. A high school is set to open in the fall with 100 ninth-grade students.
We started our fact-checking by looking at RIDE statistics. RIDE reports per-pupil costs for all public schools in the state by adding up total budgets and dividing by the number of students.
It uses a "Uniform Chart of Accounts," a standardized method by which every district, public charter school and state-operated school tracks revenue and expenses the same way. RIDE says that allows "for an apples-to-apples comparison between districts."
Contrary to what Mollis said, RIDE’s figures show that Blackstone Valley’s per-pupil costs were actually LESS than Cumberland’s in fiscal years 2012 and 2013.
However, in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, -- the charter’s first two years -- Blackstone Valley’s costs were significantly higher. (The fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30.)
Here are the numbers:
FY 2010: Cumberland $11,007. Blackstone Valley Prep: $15,664.
FY 2011: Cumberland $10,905. Blackstone Valley Prep: $15,408.
FY 2012: Cumberland: $12,294. Blackstone Valley Prep: $11,716.
FY 2013: Cumberland: $12,280. Blackstone Valley Prep: $12,054.
RIDE spokesman Elliot Krieger said the costs are "equalized," by subtracting capital costs and debt service from those who report it through the school budget - "the only fair way to compare districts."
Krieger says, "Our pupil expenditure data does not support that [Mollis’] statement."
That seems pretty straightforward, right?
But when we asked the Mollis campaign to back up his statement, campaign manager Nicholas Cicchitelli directed us to RIDE "revenue-per-pupil" figures - not cost-per-pupil - as "black-and-white support" for Mollis’ claim.
Cicchitelli said that’s a more valid figure to use because it "shows how much money taxpayers are actually paying per pupil to the Mayoral Academy vs. what they pay to Cumberland public schools per pupil."
But hang on a minute.
First, in the debate, Mollis said "cost per pupil," not "revenue per pupil."
And second, revenues are actually "money coming in," versus expenditures - which is money spent. The revenue is from all sources - local, state, federal, and ‘other,’ such as grants and donations, says Krieger.(In May, for example, BV Prep received a $450,000 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges to launch its high school this fall).
Cicchitelli also said that Mollis did not use the term "per pupil expenditure" because RIDE "includes some things and excludes others which distorts the true cost. For example, debt service is manipulated … "
Seeking clarity, we contacted the Cumberland School District. Alexander Prignano, district business manager, offered this view:
"The latest RIDE numbers are right," he said. "They do show BV and maybe two others are lower [than Cumberland.] But to say that without looking behind the numbers is misleading."
Prignano said per-pupil costs at charter schools are typically lower "because they don’t have the special ed population that a public school will have, and special ed students are very, very costly to educate." Another example: mayoral academies are exempt from the state’s pension system, he said.
We asked Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council - an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan public policy research and education organization - to weigh in.
Executive director John C. Simmons said RIDE provided RIPEC with data for per-pupil expenditures and per-pupil revenue, "which allowed us to compare the two schools over time."
"We would say you should look at the cost per student as opposed to where the money came from," Simmons said. He noted, for example, "You can get grants and contributions that are not taxpayer money."
Simmons also said it’s not surprising that Blackstone Valley’s costs per pupil in its first few years were high because of the expense of starting a new school, spread out among relatively few students -- 76 in the beginning. And it’s not surprising that those costs "would decline rapidly as the number of students increases."
Simmons said, "It looks like during the first two years of transition, Blackstone spent a considerable amount more [per pupil] than Cumberland did. When you look into the more norming years, Blackstone Valley spent less than Cumberland by a couple hundred dollars."
Ralph Mollis said: "The per-pupil cost in the Mayoral Academy [Blackstone Valley] far outweighs the per-pupil cost in Cumberland public schools." That’s a pretty sweeping claim.
And it’s only true for the school’s first two years, when start-up costs, spread over a relatively small number of students, would be high.
It’s not true for the more representative last two years, when the Academy’s per-pupil costs were lower, not higher.
The efforts of the Mollis campaign to consider "revenue per pupil" didn’t sway us. It’s not the same thing and it’s not what Mollis said.
Because Mollis’ statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, we rate it Mostly False.
(Correction: The original version of this item did not mention the third Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, state Rep. Frank Ferri.)
State of the State, "Democratic Primary Debate for Lieutenant Governor," July 10, 2014
Interview, emails: Nick Cicchitelli, campaign manager for A. Ralph Mollis, July 15-Aug. 4
Interviews, emails: Elliot Krieger, spokesman, Rhode Island Department of Education, July 28-August 6, 2014
Interview, Alexander Prignano, district business manager, Cumberland School District, July 31, 2014
Interview, emails: John C. Simmons, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council, Aug. 1-6, 2014
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