It’s almost that time again: the start of a new school year. For select Flagstaff students, that means attending one of the town’s charter schools, such as Pine Forest School, Mountain School and Haven Montessori Charter School. And for the charter schools, that means budgeting for another year of operations with limited government funds. While each school features its own unique educational methods and philosophies, one commonality connects them: the necessity of fundraising, yearly fees, and tax credit contributions to offset costs.
Flagstaff charter schools are part of a growing population of free, specialized public programs; over 5,000 authorized charter schools in 41 states and the District of Columbia provide an alternative to the standard public school education. In places such as New York City, these schools are an alternative for at-risk children who would otherwise wind up in overcrowded schools. And Arizona is mirroring national charter school growth. According to the Arizona Charter School Association, charter school student population grew 44 percent in 2011, and there were 133,890 students enrolled in charter schools for the 2012 fiscal year. In Flagstaff, families have over half a dozen charter school options, including Waldorf and Montessori programs.
Like their traditional public school counterparts, these charter schools face insufficient government funding. While their money comes from the Arizona Department of Education like other public schools, it is more limited in both amount and scope. Arizona charter schools’ state allotment, which is determined by student population and attendance records, does not cover expenses such as building overhead.
The Flagstaff charter schools are all too familiar with these constraints. As Cristy Zellar, administrative director at Haven Montessori, put it, “It’s difficult to run a charter school on what the state provides.” She is not alone in this sentiment; Michael Heffernan, principal and director of Pine Forest School, and Renee Faust, director of Mountain School, echo the financial challenges. Pine Forest has faced a particularly tough past few years. Despite receiving special federal grant monies, the school has had to enact payroll freezes and staff reduction. According to Heffernan, “This has helped us become more efficient, but also was difficult as we were forced to lay people off.” The school’s solution: careful budget maintenance coupled with fundraising and donations.
When it comes to budgeting, Flagstaff’s charter schools are resoundingly conservative, and their meticulousness has kept them afloat. As Faust explained, “We definitely follow the formula on the state budget pages and we are very conservative. We always…underestimate how many kids we’ll have and overestimate what everything will cost.” The other schools are similarly diligent; Haven Montessori features pre-school and full-day kindergarten programs that create additional revenue, and Pine Forest enlists a financial consultant to help review the monthly budget. To cover the remaining deficit, the charter schools rely on yearly student fees and a variety of fundraising efforts.
Those fundraising efforts are as varied as the schools themselves. At Pine Forest, the PTA helps run a WinterFaire celebration and spring gala, while Haven Montessori supporters turn out for events such as an annual comedy show and bike-a-thon. And then there’s Mountain School’s wildly successful “Run for the Mountain” race, which kicks off the popular Flagstaff Summer Running Series and is Mountain School’s most lucrative fundraising event, with the school receiving 85 percent of the proceeds. Outside of fundraising, parent volunteers – an integral aspect of many charter schools – can help cut costs while building a sense of community. As Heffernan said, “We have tremendously supportive parents at Pine Forest. Roofing, landscaping, carpentry, painting, plumbing, auto mechanics – to name a few – are skills and services our families offer and all these reduce costs.” Additional initiatives such as the Arizona tax credit program and E-Scrip provide alternative contribution opportunities, and many charter schools have a donation link on their websites.
With their unique programs and significant parental involvement, charter schools are refreshing alternatives for families who are unsatisfied with the standard public school system but unable to afford private institutions. And while fiscal struggles are an unfortunate reality for many of them, fastidious budgeting and their communities’ financial contributions help charter schools meet their end goal: to provide an exceptional education. FBN