Faculty now must wrestle with state laws, finance woes

At 4 p.m. Tuesday, about 120 students poured out of their classrooms after their first day of school in Indianapolis. Their parents waited in their cars for them outside.

At the same time, hundreds of miles away, about 10 girls, most of them mothers, remained in school in Schererville. Their children waited for them in the day care provided by the school.

Meanwhile - atop the tenth floor of the Ball State Teachers College - sat Ken Miller, the assistant to the dean. The students in Indianapolis and the mothers in Schererville may never see each other, but they are linked together through this man.

The students, along with about 370 teen-agers, enrolled in six of Ball State's charter schools during the summer. Tuesday, the last of Ball State's schools scheduled to start this fall, Irvington Community School, opened its doors.

Now the true test can begin, as Miller and his team evaluate their charges and the charter schools wrestle with state education laws and financial hurdles.

"The paperwork alone keeps me up at night," Mindi Rohan, the director of New Community Schools in West Lafayette, said. Rohan was forced to find a new school building two weeks before her school opened because her previous building did not meet state sanitation codes

"It's definitely out of our world."

Charter schools were born in the chambers of Indiana's General Assembly in 2001, and Ball State was the first to announce it would sponsor the experimental schools, institutions funded by public education dollars that operate off contracts.

The schools themselves can vary, though most this year cater to students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Miller and a team of faculty members from the Teachers College spent the past summer selecting its seven schools (the seventh, the Charter School of the Dunes, is scheduled to open next year) under the auspice they would monitor their progress. Now, Ball State will spend the rest of the school year fulfilling its obligation to reprimand schools that do not follow its charter or the education laws of Indiana.

Charter schools must send periodic reviews to Ball State, as well as any documents the school might send to the state - from enrollment data to background checks to board minutes. This, Miller said, will ensure they adhere to state laws.

To guarantee they follow their charters, Ball State faculty periodically visit the schools, Miller said, culminating in a "intensive" comprehensive review in April.

"We hope these schools will be successful and children enrolled in the school will have a productive environment," Miller said.

In return for its oversight, Ball State's charter schools must allocate three percent of the money it receives from the state to the university.

Miller said, however, that the university has acquired an outside grant to help cover the costs, though he said he couldn't release the amount of the grant yet.

Charter schools, according to Indiana law, are funded like any regular public school. However, charter schools have never been funded before, and many of the institutions initially faced running their first semester without any state support.

After threatening litigation, State Attorney General Steve Carter mandated the Department of Education to help subsidize the schools' first semester.

"The problem is getting the thing going," said Timothy Ehrgott, the director of Irvington Community School. "Nobody will lend you anything."

New Community School, which previously served as a private school, must also increase its enrollment by about 18 students by Sept. 13 - when the state will do its student head count to determine how much money each school should receive. Currently, New Community enrolled 31 students, but they planned for 49.

"We'll make it like we always do. We always have," said Mindi Rohan, the school's director. "For 10 years we've done this. Money's never been flying around."

Other schools are faring better, Miller said. Campagna Academy in Schererville is about four students short of the 16, but the rest are at or near enrollment, he said.

While balancing the books, the schools have also had to take a crash course in becoming a public school. They now have to administer the ISTEP; they now have to have bathrooms on every floor; and they are not given any leeway.

"It's a lot more in-depth than when you're first conceptualizing forming a charter school," said Melinda Lunghofer, the deputy director of development for Campagna Academy. "I must say it has been very busy. It has been an adjustment for us, but I must say the students have been very eager and patient."

Nonetheless, the directors and leaders have vowed to survive, even as legislators try to determine how to fund the burgeoning system, which could create another 40 charter schools in the next five years, said Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, the chairman of the House's education committee.

"We have a budget crisis in our state," Porter said. "We're going to have to figure out how to pay for it. Are we going to flatline the education budget for the next two years and catch can?

"I'm not against charter schools. I'm a realist."


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