The color of money: Emerald

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

It’s budget time in Knox County, and the school system is first up to bat, which is the way it should be, because that’s where the biggest chunk of money goes.

Last week, Knox County Schools presented its preliminary recommended budget, which is set to be approved by the school board Wednesday. Then it will be handed off to be blessed by County Commission.

The $3.8 million that will be carved out and channeled to Emerald Academy is a relatively small chunk of the $471 million total, and it’s not “new” news that Knox County’s first – and to date, only – public charter school will consume an ever-growing portion of school funding as it builds its student body over a five-year period (in 2015, its first year, Emerald Academy offered kindergarten and first grade. Second and sixth grades were added this year, third and seventh-graders to come next year).

Some educators and board members are troubled because the taxpayer-funded portion of Emerald Academy’s budget (it also gets private donations and a substantial contribution from the United Way) is coming at the expense of the center city elementary schools that serve the county’s lowest-income students, which is what charter school opponents predicted from the get-go.

That’s because state law says the money follows the student. This means that elementary schools like Sarah Moore Greene, Lonsdale, Inskip and Christenberry will lose $7,657.02 for each student who transfers to Emerald Academy.

“My biggest concern is that when we think about the number of students, it doesn’t look like a great number or a significant amount of money,” said school board member Jennifer Owen. “But when you look at 10 kids coming from one elementary school, that really is a significant amount of money to take away from that one school that’s left behind. They still have the same fixed costs – maintenance, utilities, etc., and although legislators say they don’t have the same costs because they have to buy fewer textbooks, or whatever, when a school loses $70,000, that’s a significant shortfall.”

Several of these schools are in Owen’s district, and she is particularly concerned about Christenberry, 93.6 percent of whose families live below the poverty line, and which will be losing 10 to 12 students to Emerald Academy. Compounding the financial hit and loss of involved parents is a relatively high number of undocumented students who don’t get counted in the formula that determines the distribution of federal funds.

Emerald Charter Schools’ public information officer John Crooks doesn’t believe these worries are well founded.

“Scholars come to Emerald Academy from neighborhoods across the city, which would seem to minimize the impact on any one particular traditional public school as the dollars follow the child. For 2017-2018, we are in the budget development process and have not been provided with a funding estimate from the state or Knox County Schools yet, so we can’t speak to what that amount will be until we receive that information,” Crooks said.

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