Here’s an interesting tidbit from a school board workshop on charter schools: While the school district is scraping for pennies, some of the charter schools it oversees are still holding on to healthy reserves.

San Diego Unified sets a general guideline of 3 percent for emergency funds for its charter schools. Most have met that bar and many have exceeded it. The Charter School of San Diego, for instance, has nearly $18 million in the bank — more than its annual revenue. That’s roughly 52 times more money than the school district would encourage them to keep in reserve.

Lisa Berlanga of the California Charter Schools Association said the large reserves speak to the financial efficiency of charter schools, which has helped them weather the budget crisis.

This is a good time to have money in the bank: Ten out of the 37 charters overseen by San Diego Unified spent more money than they reaped from the state last year, including all of the King/Chavez schools in Barrio Logan, but most of them aren’t in the red because of reserves. But there’s also an argument that saving so much money means that the dollars aren’t immediately being spent to educate kids.

Charter schools are independently run schools that are funded with public money and overseen by school districts. They are free from school district regulations and a number of state rules, and many are not unionized, but they can be revoked if they are mismanaged or if their results are poor.

The financial breakdown was part of a larger presentation by employees about a new, more systemic way of evaluating charter schools for approval or renewal. Those decisions have been sticky and somewhat subjective in the past, without clear rules on how charters could prove themselves, and so the school board and San Diego Unified staff have often differed on whether they should be renewed. There can be tremendous public pressure from parents and educators to renew charters, even with lackluster results.

The hope for both charter schools and San Diego Unified is that a new set of guidelines will clear the air. “They’re doing a much more thorough review,” Berlanga said. “We’re all about quality.”

EMILY ALPERT

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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