Students from Community Public Charter School perform for Murray High School students. Credit: Credit: Community Public Charter School

The Community Public Charter School, a charter middle school in Albemarle County that operates on both public and private funds, is facing a cloudy financial forecast.

The school’s leadership has told the Albemarle School Board that securing the funds needed to maintain innovative programming and, in part, to pay for more teachers than the division allocates is becoming increasingly difficult.

According to Bobbi Snow, one of the school’s founders and chairwoman of CPCS’ school management team, one reason for the challenge is that donors are starting to earmark their gifts for specific uses, such as electives or other focused curriculum areas, rather than for staffing, which Snow said is the school’s top priority.

“As you know, when you get a grant, they want to fund a program, they don’t want to fund a teacher’s salary, so it’s very hard to convince people to just put that money into a teacher fund,” Snow said at a recent meeting of the School Board.

Since the school’s 2008 inception, CPCS has raised more than $1.5 million, most of which has been designated for specialty programming such as blacksmithing and metalworking, as well as music and drama.

However, during two years of staffing level reductions across the division, CPCS has been using some of those funds to pay for teachers in order to better meet students’ needs. As the expectations tied to the private funding begin to change, paying for teachers is no longer an option, said Ashby Kindler, principal of CPCS.

“We want those core positions funded at full-time, and then we can move from there,” Kindler said, noting that given the school’s small size, losing one teacher significantly impacts class sizes.

What’s more, Kindler said, the annual budget uncertainty places a strain on the school’s community.

“It’s hard to retain some of our teachers because they get a little worried when we start heading into budget season and we’re not sure how much staffing we’re going to have,” Kindler said. “That is an uncomfortable situation for teachers … and, to a certain extent, that trickles down to our families, as well, because they want to make sure that we’re here.”

In an effort to avoid yearly staffing fluctuations, Charter’s leadership recently requested that the Albemarle School Board commit 6.0 full-time-equivalent teaching positions to the school — a move that would come with an additional $109,000 annual price tag.

Currently, Charter is allocated 4.58 full-time-equivalent teaching positions. The highest number of full-time-equivalent teaching positions Charter ever was allocated was 5.1

But the School Board’s chairman, Ned Gallaway, distinguished renewing the school’s charter —which was the purpose of the recent conversation — and fulfilling the staffing request as two separate issues, and said that the board determines staffing levels during the budget process.

“Whether a board member supports the notion behind your request or not, the process of the board has to remain true, and that’s what I’m trying to maintain the integrity of,” Gallaway said. “It’s not a comment on the charter school.”

Snow disagreed.

“It isn’t separate for us,” Snow said. “We can’t sign a charter with any good faith that we can raise the money.”

“I understand that this year we missed the window of opportunity, but we’re asking that in the future for [6.0 full-time-equivalent teaching positions] to be included in our contract,” Snow said.

CPCS, the only charter public middle school in Virginia, serves students in grades six through eight, many of whom struggled in the late elementary years and are at risk of falling behind their peers.

The school utilizes small class sizes and an arts-infused curriculum, as well as psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser’s Choice Theory, which allows students to choose their own paths to success within assignments and in their learning as a whole.

Next year the middle school plans to serve 48 students, which will be the highest enrollment to date.

Beginning this school year, CPCS will be housed on the campus of Murray High School. Previously, the school was housed at Burley Middle School, but CPCS is moving due to space constraints at Burley.

Matt Haas, assistant superintendent of Albemarle schools, said staffing levels are largely determined by decisions made in the formulation of the division’s annual budget.

“One of the ways the board chose to reduce our [funding] gap was through a reduction in staffing, so in order to accommodate that we have to be really strategic about how we put out the staffing to the schools,” Haas said.

Albemarle staffs schools based on enrollment and demonstrated need. Once those figures are set, Haas continues to communicate with principals about their needs throughout the summer, and can provide additional staffing from an emergency pool.

However, Haas said the request from Charter does not come without precedent.

“We do have other schools — because of their small size — that are held harmless to facets of staffing for the reasons Charter has cited,” Haas said, citing Yancey Elementary.

“I think the key piece is what commitment we can make at what level, given that our staff basically gets set in place back when we start building the budget in November,” said Pam Moran, superintendent of Albemarle schools.

At Gallaway’s suggestion, Snow and Kindler will now consult with the rest of CPCS’ school management team to determine if they want to include the funding request in their charter renewal, or if they want to separate those two items. The issue is expected to be discussed again at the board’s August business meeting.

“I know it’s not an easy decision for you, but we take the neediest kids in the division and we are an intervention for them,” Snow said. “They’re under the radar in a lot of their other schools, and a lot of them [have attendance problems] when they’re in their other schools.”