DPS could see financial boon with Discovery Charter’s delayed opening

The delayed opening of Discovery Charter middle school could mean a financial boon of more than $1 million if all 350 students that were projected to enroll in the public charter school instead attend Durham Public Schools in the fall.

Discovery Charter officials announced Wednesday that they will ask the State Board of Education to push back the opening of the school until fall of 2018 because Durham County is likely to be sued in Superior Court over the county Board of Adjustment's approval of the charter school's site plan.

The Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics (S.T.E.A.M.)-themed school was supposed to open in September, but a group of neighbors has complained about traffic and expressed concern about potential harm to nearby Little River Reservoir.

Because charter schools are public schools, local funding for students follow them to whatever public school they attend.

At $3,000 per student, Durham Public Schools would get to keep more than $1 million in local dollars if all 350 attend DPS middle schools for the 2017-18 school year.

“This will reduce the amount we will have to pass through to the charters and will allow us to save some positions in schools,” Aaron Beaulieu, the school district's chief financial officer, said in response to questions about Discovery Charter's decision to delay its opening.

Superintendent Bert L'Homme has said a very tight budget year would lead to job losses.

A reduction in enrollment means a loss of state dollars to pay for teachers.

DPS projected enrollment in the county's charter schools would grow by 700 students, about half of which would have been fueled by the opening of Discovery Charter.

As charter school enrollment grows, so does the amount of money DPS must pass on to them.

Including Discovery Charter, DPS projected its “pass through” to the county's 14 charter schools would grow 15.5 percent or $3.2 million, from $20.5 million to $23.7 million.

Beaulieu said the decision to delay the opening of Discovery Charter would not affect DPS’ “new money” request to the county of about $5 million — $630,000 of which is earmarked for enrollment growth — because net student growth would remain at about 200 students.

DPS' “pass through” savings could be even greater depending on how many high school students from Kestrel Heights enroll in DPS school.

The State Board of Education (SBE) ordered Kestrel Heights, also a public charter school, to close its high school at the end of the academic year after an internal investigation found the school, since 2008, awarded high school diplomas to 160 of its 399 graduates who didn’t meet the state’s requirements for one.

The school enrolled about 350 high school students this year. Just under 300 of the high school students live in Durham County.

The SBE has agreed to create a review panel to allow Kestrel officials to appeal the board’s decision to close the high school.

The panel will meet with Kestrel officials on Tuesday, April 4.

Kestrel will continue to operate its K-8 school.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645