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Seemingly obvious conclusions aren’t always as simple as they seem.

That may well have been the case during a recent Lincoln County Board of Commissioners budget discussion.

At issue was a $430,000 funding request from the Lincoln County Schools for “charter expense.”

Superintendent Lory Morrow explained that the additional money would help replace some of the funding lost when students leave the system for charter schools.

Lincoln County Manager Kelly Atkins immediately rejected the request.

“State statutes mandate that per-pupil dollars stay with the student,” Atkins said. “If a student goes from a public school to a charter school, the dollars attached to that student must follow. It appeared to me and the commissioners that the schools were requesting to get a portion of that money back, but the statutes are very clear that the money follows the student.”

Simple as that, right?

Well, sort of.

There’s no argument that the state money follows the student. Morrow was asking for county money to replace some of the funding attached to the charter-bound students.

But wait a minute, you ask. If a student leaves for a charter school, why should LCS be entitled to any portion of the funding that goes with him her her?

That’s where the issue gets more complex.

A school’s fixed costs stay pretty much the same even if some students leave for charters. Let’s say 20 students leave an elementary school in a year. That’s a little more than three students per grade – likely not enough to reduce the number of teachers at any level … or administrators, custodians, etc.

But a portion of the state money that followed each of those 20 students went toward salaries at the LCS school. That is a true loss of money that helped cover an expense that doesn’t change.

A portion of each per-student allotment goes toward energy bills and other costs that stay the same even if he or she leaves. That’s a net loss in each case.

A 2018 Duke University study determined that such impacts on school systems can reach $4,000 per student who leaves for a charter school. In areas like Lincoln County with growing charter school populations, that adds up.

So yes, “the dollars stay with the student,” but that movement comes with a real, bottom-line cost to the system he or she leaves.

It’s as simple as that.

Or not.

John Deem is editor of Lake Norman Publications.

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