Ballard's charter school office could start charging schools a fee

An unexpected budget change that may not have caught the attention of the city’s charter school supporters — a new fee mayor-sponsored charter schools might have to pay — was tucked deep in the details of a plan that emerged this week from protracted negotiations designed to save Mayor Greg Ballard’s preschool proposal.

But, city officials insist, the idea of charging a 1 percent fee to the charters Ballard oversees is not directly related to the effort to cobble together $10 million to support preschool.

“We’ve been thinking about this for over a year,” said Brandon Brown, the city’s director of charter schools. “We don’t want to charge a fee, so we wanted it to be as low as possible to just cover our existing budget.”

Right now, charter schools sponsored by Ballard enjoy a nice savings over charter schools that are sponsored by universities or the Indiana Charter School Board. Most sponsors charge the maximum permitted by law of 3 percent of the state aid from each school as a management fee. The state charter board charges 2 percent but waives the fee for new charter schools in their first semesters.

Ballard charges the schools nothing, funding the management of his charter school office with a $600,000 allocation from the city budget. That figure has not changed since 2007. But at that time, the mayor oversaw just 13 schools. Next year, Ballard expects to sponsor 40 schools after three more open.

“It’s not going to be enough over the long term,” Brown said of his office’s current budget. “It was important for our office to do something to be more financially stable.”

Charging the fee would raise $600,000 to $750,000, depending on how many children are enrolled in charter schools next year, which could be used fund the charter school office in a way that would make it self-sustaining.

That would also free up the $600,000 the city sets aside for the charter school office to be used for other things, with preschool looking like a strong possibility.

Brown said he has spoken to the leaders of most of the city’s charter schools and heard few complaints about the possible fee, primarily because the city would remain the lowest cost sponsor — also called “authorizer” — in the state.