Iberville administrator questions charter enrollment claims

An Iberville Parish school system administrator says she’s puzzled by how the state figures the school system will be losing 376 students to a new charter school opening this year — a projection that has big financial stakes for the system.

Jolain Landry, the school system’s chief financial officer, says she’s puzzled because there haven’t been nearly that many requests to transfer student records to the new charter.

It’s no small matter for Landry because a drop in enrollment of 376 students means a loss of $3.7 million in state minimum foundation program funding for the coming school year.

Landry questioned whether the Iberville Charter Academy has been providing accurate enrollment numbers to the Louisiana Department of Education because, as of Thursday, she hadn’t received even half that many student records requests from the charter school.

“My issue is with the fairness of the way the funding is going about and the lack of information that the local school district is getting,” Landry said. “To have a number that large and not to have requested at least 50 percent of the records — something’s not right.”

Charter Schools USA and The South Louisiana Charter Foundation Inc. announced earlier this year that the companies would be opening a charter school in Iberville Parish near Belleview Drive and Enterprise Boulevard in Plaquemine.

The school, currently under construction, will offer kindergarten through sixth grade classes when school starts Aug. 11.

According to Iberville Charter Academy’s Minimum Foundation Program budget letter, the school is set to receive about $3.9 million in total revenue for the start of the 2014-15 fiscal year. That money is coming from the parishes of students who have been accepted in its inaugural class.

The charter school has projected its total enrollment at 400 students for the purposes of obtaining up-front funding for its operations from the state and local school district.

In addition to the 376 students from Iberville Parish, the charter school reported that 24 students from Ascension, East Baton Rouge and West Baton Rouge parishes have also enrolled.

“When they released that number I called to ask if the state could confirm that number because I hadn’t received that many student (records) requests,” Landry said. “They said the charter school is not willing to adjust the number and they weren’t going to make them.”

Landry said having student records requests on file with the district would prove to her that the money the school district is giving up is indeed going toward the education of Iberville Parish kids through address verification.

State education officials defended their response to Landry, saying its standard procedure to front money to charter schools based on projected enrollment.

Barry Landry, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said in an email response to questions on Friday that all state-approved charters opening for the first time are funded based on the projected number of students listed in the approved application.

He said the state will more thoroughly track the charter school’s enrollment figures in its Oct. 1 count, as it does with all public schools.

If the count for the Iberville Parish charter is less than 376 students, Barry Landry said, the charter school’s share of MFP funding from the school district would be reduced.

Iberville Parish, which currently has approximately 4,600 students attending its public schools, had only received 172 requests from the charter school for student records as of Thursday.

But Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Charter Schools USA, said 261 kids had enrolled in the charter as of Thursday and another 144 were in the process of enrolling.

The charter school’s target enrollment number for its first year of operation is 434 students.

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said she believes the state Education Department is giving charter schools too much latitude in making enrollment projections, which she said comes at a cost to taxpayers.

“We object to public money being given to charter schools ahead of actual enrollment counts,” Meaux said. “It’s an injustice to taxpayers who put up their good, hard-earned money to be used for the public good. I believe charter schools are operating more like private businesses than public schools.”

In the meantime, Jolain Landry said she plans to forge ahead with the current spending plans for the school district’s $90 million budget as is for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

“We’re not making any cuts because we don’t know at this point how many students we’ll actually lose or how many will return to us,” Landry said.

“I’m just going to budget for a deficit of $3.7 million because there is too much uncertainty surrounding the charter school.”

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.