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Charter schools are public, but a variety of accounting differences separate their budgeting practices from those at traditional schools.
For example, charter school students are weighted differently than district students for the purposes of per-pupil spending. A district student counts as one student, while a charter elementary school student and charter high school student count as nine-tenths and six-fifths of a student, respectively.
Utah lawmakers got a primer in the state's hodgepodge of charter funding quirks at the first meeting of the Charter School Funding Task Force Wednesday. The group of lawmakers and state education managers was created during the most recent legislative session to examine and recommend changes to Utah's tangled web of funding formulas.
Consider the way enrollment is calculated: School district numbers are based on average daily attendance. Charter enrollment is based on an annual October snapshot.
The different calculation method means that charter schools continue to receive state funds for students who transfer to another school after October.
But perhaps most confusing is Utah's system of local replacement funding, in which school districts hand over one-fourth the cost of educating charter students within their boundaries.
The revenue sharing is a thorn in the side of school districts, leading to frequent calls for a new, statewide property tax to fund charter schools.
But many lawmakers resist that idea.
"I have a bias against the proposal to introduce a new property tax for charter schools," Draper Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson said on Wednesday. "I believe these [charter] students are already funded and why should we stick it to taxpayers one more time to double-fund students?"
Charters have grown to enroll one out of every 10 Utah public school students, and Stephenson credited that expansion with bearing construction and personnel costs that otherwise would have fallen to school districts.
"If you were to suddenly convert those charters to district schools, there would be a massive property tax hike," Stephenson said.
Task force members spent their inaugural meeting hearing an overview of charter school funding and suggesting topics for future study.
While they acknowledged that some inefficiencies exist, lawmakers also suggested that unless Utahns believe a particular system is broken, it doesn't need to be fixed.
"When I'm hearing absolutely nothing about this [pupil] weighting, that tells me that people are OK with it," Hurricane Republican Rep. Brad Last said. "Until we start hearing cries in the night, I would say, 'Let's leave this how it is.'"
The October enrollment calculation is scheduled to sunset next year, which Sandy Republican Rep. Steven Eliason suggested could solve the issue of innacurate school headcounts.
"I think that those issues, assuming nothing changes, will largely go away, because we're all on the same playing field," Eliason said.
But task force members did show interest in a proposal to disclose charter school funding on property tax notices.
Homeowners do not currently see the share of their taxes that is earmarked for charters, and Stephenson said that type of disclosure is "perhaps, maybe overdue."
"I don't see a problem with that," Stephenson said. "It just helps people to understand that we've got parallel systems going on there." The task force is scheduled to meet five times before the next legislative session, including during a two-day legislative conference at Southern Utah University in September.