DeKalb school district underfunded charter schools, judge finds

The DeKalb County School District wrongly withheld funds from seven DeKalb charter schools, a judge ruled.

The schools missed out on more than $10 million in funding in recent years, according to the Georgia Charter School Association.

Fulton County Superior Court Senior Judge Jerry Baxter issued a summary judgment last week in favor of five of the six claims made by the charter schools. Their contracts include a provision that any legal action be filed in Fulton County.

The district breached its contracts with the schools when it did not meet minimum funding requirements, withheld state and federal funding, and improperly withheld 3% of the schools’ funding for an “administrative fee” without providing administrative services, the ruling stated.

The judge denied the schools’ claim that the schools were owed funding from the special purpose local option sales tax.

State law requires that districts fund charter schools “no less favorably” than other schools. The infractions date back to 2015, in some cases, the schools said.

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Charter schools receive public funding but are run independently of the local school system. The charter schools are overseen by the district, explained Andrew Lewis, who spend 12 years as the executive vice president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association and is now the vice president of Opus, a financial management platform for public charter schools.

“The court has found that the district did not treat these students equitably as compared to other students in DeKalb,” Lewis said. “And those actions are shameful.”

It is the district’s long-standing practice not to comment on pending litigation, a spokesman said in an email.

The district is seeking an immediate review by the state court of appeals, an attorney for the charter schools said. If it’s granted, then both parties will present their positions and await a ruling.

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“For these schools, this is an incredible amount of money,” Lewis said about the $10 million in question.

He added that inequitable funding is “commonplace” and “one of the greatest hurdles” for charter schools. He pointed to a similar effort more than 10 years ago by Atlanta Public Schools to change how its charter schools were funded in an effort to pay off a huge pension debt. The charter schools won in a lawsuit.

The DeKalb lawsuit was originally filed in August 2020.

“This is a win for the more than 4,000 students enrolled in DeKalb County’s public charter schools,” said Tony Roberts, president and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, in a news release. “The ruling also sends a clear signal that charter schools are public schools, and all children who attend them deserve equitable funding.”