Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bullis Charter School: Choice Costs Money

Recently the famous actor Wesley Snipes, reported to a Federal penitentiary to start serving his three year sentence for tax evasion. Mr. Snipes bought into the rhetoric that his shady lawyers fed him: that there was a “loophole” in the law that would allow him to get out of paying his income taxes.

As a society we condemn Mr. Snipes because what he is doing is not fair. He is in effect, sticking the rest of us with a bigger tax bill. We condemn him even though many of us don’t agree with all of the things our Federal Government spends money on--but we all know that we benefit from living in a civilized society where things are decided by popular vote. We know that all of us are saddled with the national debt (for instance) and simply disagreeing with the existence of that debt does not excuse you from paying your fair share.

We have a very similar situation playing out here in our community.

Our local school district—LASD—is a democratically-controlled institution which along with State and Federal governments has saddled us with certain obligations that our District must pay for.

Many agree with these obligations, such as a strong degree of help to special needs kids (LASD spends almost 20% of its budget [pdf] on this) and many benefited from another very large expense that our District must pay: teacher retirements (about 9% of LASD’s budget [ibid]). Those teachers taught many of our citizens who went on to become very successful and wealthy grown-ups.

But like Wesley Snipes, you don’t get to decide whether you agree or don’t agree with these expenses. The fact is that we are saddled with them, and somebody has to pay for it.

Bullis Charter School’s financial model is based on the idea that their students should be exempted from the expenses that the rest of us must share.

Bullis Charter School effectively discourages expensive-to-educate special needs kids (they offer to “ship them off to County” which no parent would ever accept in our District). Most, in our generous community, agree (and have voted accordingly) that special-needs kids should be given an excellent education. But BCS does not help pay for this expense that the rest our children, in the form of curtailed programs, do pay for.
Bullis Charter School does not share in the payments to our retired teachers and their health benefits. And of course our District has a typical burden imposed by facilities overhead (about 9%).

As such, the more kids there are at BCS, the more the rest of us must pay for these fixed expenses in the form of curtailed programs and higher student/teacher ratios.

Like Wesley Snipes, Bullis Charter School is vehement that it should not pay for the things the rest of us must pay. They call these obligations, “wasteful spending” and accuse our District and its Board of Trustees of being irresponsible with taxpayer dollars.

Unlike Wesley Snipes, however, BCS has found some loopholes that legally work--at least for now.

Add it all up, and BCS excuses itself from about $15m in annual expenses that “the rest of us” must pay—about $3,400 per student.

So just who are “the rest of us”?

Anybody who has ever attended a BCS “information night” knows that the school must raise at least $5,000 per child per year in order to maintain its programs. This is no mere “suggestion” like the suggested $1000 LAEF donation (which averages about $500 per child): without these donations, BCS would cease to exist. If one parent fails to pay, other parents need to make up the difference—and they certainly don’t hesitate to let you know that.
As such, while we don’t have the exact numbers (BCS is private) it’s logical to assume that the lion’s share of BCS parents pay at least the $5000/child per year minimum—about 460 of them.

For comparison, only about 40 parents out of 4500 in our District (about one percent) donate $5,000 or more to LAEF.

So in short, “the rest of us” is, for the most part, “the 99%”.

Fortunately there is some good news here: our District benefits from a parcel tax, which partially makes up for BCS’s lack of contribution of their fair share of the overhead burden. Per the BCS website itself, the “funding gap” is $2,874 (although some dispute that number and using other records it can be shown that the actual difference in funding is about $1,090).

Another way to look at it is that a “typical” LASD student will effectively receive about $6,120 ($9,520 total, minus $3,400 in these obligations) to spend on their own education. Per county records [pdf], on the other hand, BCS spends about $13,430 per student.

Often BCS supporters brag about their “efficiency” that allows them to offer enhanced programs and and lower student/teacher ratios—the implication being that our District is incompetent and wasteful.

But there is no magic: BCS can do more, because they get more and ignore the obligations that the rest of us legally cannot and morally should not.

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