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City Academy was one of the state's first public charter schools to start operating in 2000. But more than a decade later, the Salt Lake City school, which serves students in grades seven through 12, has yet to meet its projected enrollment.
Although the state has reserved and will pay for up to 500 children to attend City Academy, the school is now home to only 270 students a trend emerging in many of Utah's 88 charter schools, prompting state officials Thursday to demand better accountability from charter school administrators when it comes to enrollment.
More than 5,000 seats are vacant at Utah's charter schools, spots that school operators claimed would be filled with students when making a pitch to create their respective charter schools in the first place.
State Charter School Board members have directed staff to draw up new rules so that charters that do not enroll students in line with projected enrollments don't hold hostage funds that could be going to other schools.
"This causes problems when we approve new schools [and] we need to do something," board member Tim Beagley said at a Thursday meeting, of charter schools not meeting projected enrollments.
Beagley said the board's intention is not to punish the state's charters, which educate 50,785 youngsters.
"We've got a lot of demand and we need to handle this better," Beagley said. "[New] charters are not approved because they won't be successful but because we have no [funded] seats."
Each year, the board receives twice as many applications to open new charter schools as are eventually approved, officials said. There's also a lengthy application process, where new charter operators usually have to apply 18 months before opening their doors to students.
Although there's no official cap on charter enrollment, officials said the state's funding allows for only so many schools. All Utah students provide their schools with what's called a weighted pupil unit (WPU), which for the 2012-13 school year amounted to $2,848 per student. And charters receive additional money from what is called local replacement funding (LRF), of $1,673 in lieu of local property taxes for facilities, supplies, and other school essentials. That LRF pot is only so big each year and usually can accommodate around 6,000 charter student "seats."
Even so, charters taught an uptick of 8.4 percent of all K-12 students in Utah this year, or nearly twice as many as the national average of 4.5 percent. If not for the funding cap, charter experts assert there would likely be many more than the current 88 operational charter schools in Utah.
Although officials are still working out specifics, state board member Howard Headlee said charters should be given an enrollment "buffer," a few years to get up enrollment before giving up their projected seats.
Sonia Woodbury, director of City Academy, said coming up with projected student numbers can be tricky, and that her school followed standards when coming up with 500 students in 2000. "The [state board's] language sounded drastic but it's willing to work with us," Woodbury said after Thursday's meeting.
A proposal calls for a charter's enrollment to be decreased if the school has not met 80 percent of projected enrollment for two consecutive years, but the board on Thursday wasn't yet ready to commit to that idea.
More than a dozen charters were scrutinized at the meeting for not meeting projected enrollments. Many of those schools had varying reasons for not being full.
At the Utah County Academy of Sciences in Orem, the school building has a capacity of 400 students, so educators decided not to include ninth-graders.
The school is approved for 500 students.
"I would not have any problem with them [state board] doing that with the caveat if I do get a new building, they have an easy way to get it back," Principal Clark Baron said.
At the Guadalupe School in Salt Lake City, Executive Director Victoria Mori said the school is raising money for a new building that could potentially accommodate more students. The original school opened in 1970 and became a charter in 2006. It serves students from homes below the poverty level.
"When we set up enrollment with the state, we hoped we'd be in our new school," Mori said, of why her school hasn't kept up with enrollment projections.
Utah's charter system allowed for eight new schools to open this 2012-13 school year.
Chris Bleak, of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said he doesn't think the board's call for stricter accountability with charter school enrollment will hinder more charter schools from opening in the future.
"It's more a management tool to reallocate students," Bleak said.