GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Deborah Nataloni keeps a plunger in the utility closet at the Galloway Community Charter School, where she is the director.
If a toilet gets clogged in the bathroom, she puts on a pair of disposable gloves and takes care of it herself.
"We outsource our maintenance, so even the teachers have a few tools in their desks," Nataloni said.
Pinching pennies is second nature to charter school directors such as Nataloni. Founded under the premise that they would operate not just differently from regular public schools, but also more efficiently, state law allocates charter schools 90 percent of the per-pupil cost of their local public schools.
But that number can be deceptive. The new school funding formula does not include all aid given to public schools and includes no funds for facilities, which can drop a charter's per-student education costs to 75 percent or less of the local public school cost.
The New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association has been lobbying for more funding for growing schools.
"We are (spending) significantly below adequacy across the board," said Jessani Gordon, executive director of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association. Adequacy is the funding amount at which the state Department of Education determines every student will receive an equal level of education in their respective grades.
Gordon said it would take $3.5 million next year to make sure no charter school loses aid.
"We are asking for a cap so that no school loses more than 4 percent of its funding from the previous year," she said. "That's our new message."
Nataloni is pragmatic about her funding. Her K-8 school is spending about $9,862 per student just on education costs this year, ranking it 652 out of 669 schools in this year's state school Comparative Spending Guide.
"It's not a matter of what we are doing without," she said. "It's an attitude about what we have. My first thought about any purchase is, 'Do we really need it?'"
Public school alternative
Charter schools - public schools run by private boards of trustees - have been growing in popularity as an alternative to traditional public schools. Nationally, 1.4 million students attend 4,600 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia. The schools have been both praised for saving students from failure and vilified for siphoning funds from public schools without showing sufficient results.
Charter schools have earned support from President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said in a report issued this month that while current research is promising, more is needed to get a clear picture of their effectiveness.
Each state develops its own charter school regulations. New Jersey passed in 1995 the Charter School Program Act, which requires the state education commisioner to grant charters and the state Department of Education to monitor the schools.
For the 2008-09 school year, there are 62 charter schools in operation statewide, teaching about 19,000 students. Four operate in Atlantic County: Galloway Community Charter School, Oceanside Charter School in Atlantic City, PleasanTech Academy Charter School in Pleasantville and the Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point.
But operating a charter school is not for the faint-hearted. In the past dozen years, 11 schools have had their charters revoked, 17 schools voluntarily surrendered their charters, five were approved but never opened, and three were not renewed following state, review according to state DOE officials.
"It is very, very difficult," said assistant education Commissioner Jay Doolan. "You need an excellent board, strong leadership to run the school and a dedicated staff to address the school's vision."
Doolan said that while the state provides assistance and oversight, it is ultimately the responsibility of the school leaders to succeed or close.
Charter schools face two primary challenges - finding a suitable location they can afford, and recruiting enough students to keep the school viable. Funding is based on enrollment, so a school's survival depends on attracting and retaining students. The schools must meet all state standards, and students take the same annual state tests given to all public school children in the state.
"We are at a real disadvantage in funding facilities," said Keith Mills, a founder and board president of PleasanTech Academy Charter School in Pleasantville. The school owns its original site on Martin Luther King Avenue and leases space in the Pleasantville Shopping Center once used by the former Academic Excellence Charter School, which closed.
"We have no bonding capacity," Mills said. "We are working to expand our original site so we can have all the students on one campus, but it takes time."
Doolan said the Department of Education does not anticipate any changes in facilities funding.
Because of their locations in higher-spending urban districts, Oceanside and PleasanTech do receive more funding than Galloway, $14,028 and $12,064 per student, respectively, on education costs this year, according to the Comparative Spending Guide.
Teaching gets creative
Nataloni began small, opening as a full-day kindergarten program in a township that, at the time, offered only a half-day program. The school has since expanded to eighth grade and moved from a shopping center in Smithville to its own small building on Route 9, serving about 340 students.
Charter Tech High School also has its own building, but Oceanside still operates out of a series of connected trailers intended as a temporary solution.
Charter school staff learn to be creative. They apply for grants. PleasanTech plays all its sports games away.
"Pleasantville has been very gracious in letting us use their facilities when they can," Mills said.
Galloway kept construction costs down by eliminating non-essentials. The school has a small all-purpose room/gym, but no auditorium or cafeteria. Students eat lunch in their classrooms. The school rents a portable stage and chairs for graduation, and leases the auditorium at The Hess School in Hamilton Township for their spring show.
The county Bookmobile visits twice per month in place of a school library. The art and music teacher share a room also used by an occupational therapist. Nataloni eschews expensive textbooks for online and paperback resources, which may not last as long, but are far less expensive and easily updated.
Lacking the funds for supplemental staff, the school pays stipends to teachers who take on extra jobs. Teacher Jessica Fisher took on administrative tasks while she was getting her master's degree, giving her experience, while saving the school money.
Now in her tenth year at the school, Fisher admits to being a bit shocked when she first arrived, but the school has been the right fit for her.
"I came in asking where are all the books and blackboards," she said. "But everyone works here as a team. Teachers see a need for something, and they just start doing it."
An example is the staff on-site day-care service, paid for and run by the teachers who use it.
Even after more than a decade, Nataloni said many people are still confused about the charter concept and think the school is part of the Galloway school district, or a private school. The sign on the school intentionally highlights that it is free. While each charter school is different, most are intentionally small - a major attraction for parents.
Sandy Atkinson, president of the Galloway School Parent-Teacher Organization, said the small class sizes and individualized instruction are what convinced her to send her two children to the school.
"There were almost 30 students in a class in Galloway when we moved my son here (in second grade)," she said.
She admits the charter school cannot afford all the extracurricular activities offered in the district schools, something they are working to improve.
"We do a lot of fundraising to pay for field trips and assemblies," Atkinson said. "Parents are very supportive. And we always feel welcome that we can go into the school at any time."
Despite the challenges, interest remains strong and has been expanding more into suburban areas. Six more charter schools are scheduled to open in September, including Cumberland County's first charter school in Vineland. Twenty-seven new applications were received for the 2010-11 school year, including one for the Pleasantville-Egg Harbor Township area, and 11,000 students are on waiting lists statewide, Gordon said.
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