Savannah-Chatham school board: Charter schools should get future ESPLOST IV funds


The last time a Savannah-Chatham County charter school received Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) funding was from ESPLOST II, according to the district website at Oglethorpe Charter Academy received just over $21.2 million as a “replacement school.”

While not always on the receiving end of ESPLOST funds, the charter schools do receive regular funding from the district — based on student population — from federal, state and local revenues.

None of the district’s five charter schools are listed in the projects report for ESPLOST III. However, the charter schools may look forward to some funding with ESPLOST IV, if the measure is approved by the voters in 2021.

At its informal meeting prior to the board meeting earlier this month, the SCCPSS school board discussed proposed projects at various schools for the proposed ESPLOST IV. Several board members expressed consideration that charter schools be included in the discussion.

The proposal would be the continuation of the penny sales tax which helps fund local schools and reduces the district’s dependence on bond measures.

Charter schools operating in the black

Nearly 1,900 of Savannah-Chatham County’s 37,000 students attend district charter schools. The five charter schools — Coastal Empire Montessori, Oglethorpe, Savannah Classical Academy, Susie King Taylor Community, and Tybee Island Maritime Academy — presented their annual financial reports to the school board at its informal meeting earlier this month.

Generally speaking, all five charter schools are operating in the black, meaning they have more funds on hand than debts owed. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that due to havoc caused by COVID, charters are facing many of the same challenges as the district’s regular public schools.

With the implementation of SCCPSS Phase II and Phase III Return to Learn, some charter schools have seen families struggle with in-person attendance due to lack of transportation. Some families have had to leave a charter and transfer to another district school that is closer to their home, or, in some cases, find a school that still offers a virtual option. Savannah Classical Academy has dropped its virtual option and is offering in-person instruction only.

Leaders of four area charter schools mentioned transportation as a reason for some families opting to leave their particular charter school. For example, Coastal Empire Montessori has $51,597 budgeted for transportation in 2020-21, but “that money is not being spent,” said CEMS CFO Bill Kovach, since transportation is currently not being offered.

Tybee Island Maritime Academy’s board voted in late September to open five-days-a-week in-person and opted for the temporary transportation agreement with the district. TIMA is paying the district $73,333 annually to transport its students who do not live on Tybee Island to the school.

Savannah Classical has not entered into a similar agreement, balking at the district’s proposed charge of $2,800 per day.

The temporary transportation agreement between the charter schools and the district stems from a cost-sharing agreement that was approved in December 2019, using the district’s calculation of $34 per hour — the rate of bus usage for field trips. However, the pandemic has drastically altered the district’s implementation of bus service for all students, and the district “remains available and ready to offer pupil transportation services to charter schools as they are requested and resources allow,” wrote Stacy Jennings, SCCPSS district director of communications, in an email.

Coastal Empire Montessori School

CEMS currently has 255 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. “On Oct. 5 we moved to our version of a hybrid program. We gave our families a choice — continuation of full virtual or two days of in-person school,” said Stephanie Babcock-Wright, the school’s executive director. “The mood of the campus has improved since the students returned to school.”

She added that about half of the school’s families chose to participate in the hybrid model, and “we just continue to be diligent with our safety protocols.”

CEMS spends more than $188,000 in rent each year, but “we would love to own our own building,” said Kovach. He expressed gratitude for the board’s consideration of including charter schools in the upcoming ESPLOST IV discussion.

“We would not use any ESPLOST funds for rental expenses,” he added. “We want to be somewhere more permanent [and have] our students in a much better atmosphere for learning.” He said with the current construction of the Rockingham Farms warehouse space adjacent to the school, their desire to find a permanent location sooner rather than later is a priority.

“Would you be willing to move?” asked Shawn Kachmar, District 4 school board member.

“Our response would be a very enthusiastic ‘yes’,” Kovach replied. “If we were to use ESPLOST funds, it would not be used on our existing space.”

Oglethorpe Charter Academy

Oglethorpe is a middle school with 601 students. “It’s going to be a tight budget year for us, but I think we have plenty of money to make it work,” said Kevin Wall, Oglethorpe’s principal.

“We have a healthy waiting list for all grades,” Wall added, speaking of in-person classes. “The wait list is due to teachers choosing to remain virtual.” He said that he followed the district’s lead by giving his teachers a choice to return to the classroom or remain virtual with the start of Phase II on Oct. 5. Each grade has “eight to 10 kids on the wait list.”  “If we could get more teachers in, we can get more students in the classroom.”

“How many students have left?” asked Julie Wade, District 1 board member. “Rough estimate, probably 10 to 12,” Wall answered. “[These] are students who have moved out of state; they did not go to [area] private schools.”

Savannah Classical Academy

SCA currently has 409 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. And although enrollment dipped in 2018 and 2019, school Executive Director Barry Lollis is confident that enrollment will continue to increase to reach the school’s full capacity of 640 by 2024.

Lollis added that the school has started two CTEA programs — culinary arts and film and technology. He would like to add a pre-kindergarten program. “That is one thing our families are asking for.” And including the charter school’s in the ESPLOST discussion would help the school in another way — transportation would be an allowable expense.

Susie King Taylor Community School

Susie King Taylor has 295 students in grades kindergarten through 7th. “We are growing a grade a year until we add eighth grade next year,” said Latrisha Chattin, the school’s director. She added that the school recently hired a nurse. “Every year that we grow, we are hiring staff to support our students.”

Like other area charter schools, SKTCS rents its space but really wants to own a permanent location. “We are spending about $20,000 a month for rent. We are interested in sharing 208 (the district administrative building on Bull Street),” Chattin said. “It is our intention to purchase property and not continue renting.” She added that the school’s middle school students could be housed in the administration building.

Most of Susie King Taylor’s students are participating in the hybrid model. “Approximately 60% of our students are on campus four days a week,” Chattin added. “And all of our teachers are on campus.”

Tybee Island Maritime Academy

TIMA currently has 328 students in kindergarten through 6th grade. The school opted for the temporary transportation agreement and opened its campus to the students five days a week starting on Oct. 5. “We want to be part of ESPLOST,” Peter Ulrich, TIMA principal said. “We are not interested in leaving the island.”

“How far do your students have to travel?” asked Irene Gadson-Hines, District 5 board member.

“The closest students who don’t live on Tybee are 12 miles away,” Ulrich answered. “We have students coming from Pooler, Port Wentworth, and Garden City. We are grateful for the transportation, although it is very costly.”