School Sport Pact Splits Natomas

Natomas school board members sent charter schools a message last night: The buck stops here. Sort of.

The historically charter-friendly Natomas Unified School District voted 4-0 to implement a new fee schedule for charter schools. The move is an effort to both standardize and recoup costs associated with services the district provides the four – soon to be five – independent charter schools operating within its boundaries.

Superintendent Bobbie Plough proposed a comprehensive fee schedule and new calculation for special education services to reduce the impact financially independent charter schools have on district coffers. The proposal was part of her plan to balance the school district’s budget and avoid a state takeover of its day-to-day operations.

But the school board stopped short at eliminating a multi-school agreement that allows students who attend NP3 charter school to try out for, and participate on, sports teams at both Natomas and Inderkum high schools. Instead, the board voted 3-1 to delay terminating the agreement until the end of the 2011-12 school year with the understanding NP3 will pay the cost of its participating students. Trustee Jules Tran, hesitant to vote on the issue last night, was the lone “no” vote; board member B. Teri Burns was absent.

“The extension to the multi-campus agreement offers time for NP3 to plan for the future during these uncertain times,” board president Bruce Roberts said.

The decision was met with outcry and several people in the audience booed.

“The board president told me recently that we can’t have any sacred cows anymore,” Natomas Teachers’ Association president Cynthia Connell said. “Apparently, that’s true for some and not for others.”

During public comment, one teacher spoke about “the elephant in the room” and cited the $5,000 the school district receives from the state for each student who attends one of its schools. During the 2009-10 school year, 107 students from NP3 played high school sports. If, for example, those students went to Natomas or Inderkum, they would bring with them more than $500,000 to the district – or $2 million over four years.

The Natomas Unified School District is the only one in the immediate area where all the charter schools are financially independent. The Twin Rivers Unified School District has seven dependent charter schools, in the Sacramento City Unified School District five of its 13 charter schools are dependent, and in the San Juan Unified School District two of the five charter schools there are financially dependent.

Plough recommended the new fees for services and ending the multi-school agreement during a board workshop in January. She said the district was subsidizing NP3 students to play on traditional high school sports teams and the charter school’s enrollment bumps these teams up to divisions where they play against larger schools. At that workshop, trustee Burns suggested the charter schools were big enough to have their own teams. (The school district says it pays out $344 per athlete.)

All five board members attended the board workshop and supported, by consensus, Plough’s proposal to end the multi-school athletic agreement. But the board took a step back from this stance when trustee Lisa Kaplan made a motion to delay ending the agreement for a year at last night’s meeting; Roberts seconded the motion.

The decision was the second time during Plough’s tenure the school board did not follow a recommendation meant to boost district finances. In December the superintendent sought a stricter policy on out-of-district school transfers – which neighboring school districts practice – but board members balked, saying they didn’t want to “force” anyone to keep their children in the district.

“I moved to terminate the agreement at the end of the 2012 school year because I did not believe it was timely or appropriate to cut off the sports program with very little notice to set-up their own program and giving them a year to set up their own program was enough time,” Kaplan said.

The Natomas Unified board room was filled to capacity last night with the audience overflowing into the foyer. Dozens including students, parents and school principals testified. Some sought a reprieve or compromise while others pitted the qualities of NP3 academics against those at the traditional high schools. Tempers flared long after the controversial vote.

NP3 principal Tom Rutten said he hated seeing neighbors battling over this issue. He added that NP3 will be the first impacted by the new fee schedule approved last night.

“It’s been a great partnership for the last 4 ½ years, but money makes people do silly things.”

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