Charter plight hits home for lawmaker

Reed DeMordaunt founded North Star Charter School, but he hasn’t served on the school’s board since May 2004.

Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle

But like other parents, he has pitched in when and where he can, from cleaning floors to hanging whiteboards in the classrooms.

And like other parents, the House Education Committee chairman is waiting to see what becomes of the cash-strapped Eagle charter school. The Meridian School District has issued a “notice of defect,” a first step that could lead to the 10-year-old school’s closure.

“I hope it’s not the end,” DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, told Idaho Education News Tuesday. “We’re not ready to jump ship, I can tell you.”

DeMordaunt has a fifth- and a third-grader attending North Star, and five of his six children have attended the school at one time or another. He gives the school high marks for academics, and pins the school’s problems on facilities costs.

As the Idaho Statesman reported last week, North Star broke ground in 2008 on a school that was expected to cost $7 million, financed with a 6.75 percent interest loan. Eventually, both the building cost and the interest rate climbed, and the school is paying 9.75 percent interest on an $11.75 million debt.

The result, according to the Statesman, is a $640,000 shortfall. That leaves North Star three options: restructuring its loan; folding its K-12 school back into the Meridian district; or shutting its doors, leaving Meridian to absorb an influx of 920 students.

The challenge of financing charter facilities is not unique to North Star; unlike traditional schools, charter schools cannot collect property taxes to offset building costs. This year, the Legislature passed House Bill 206, which would award charter schools stipends to offset facilities costs. DeMordaunt was one of 40 House Republicans who gave the bill final approval Wednesday.

The $1.4 million stipend bill awaits Gov. Butch Otter’s signature. But if the law goes into effect on July 1, the stipend wouldn’t be enough to cover North Star’s shortfall.

Charter schools will receive stipends based on enrollment, and as one of the state’s larger charters, North Star would be eligible for a larger stipend. Based on current enrollment figures, North Star would receive about $104,000, according to Ken Burgess, a lobbyist who worked on the charter bill. North Star would also be assessed a $17,163 authorizer’s fee.

North Star’s best hope is in finding a way to restructure its debt, DeMordaunt said. “(School officials) got themselves into a bad situation with this loan.”

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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