As Waco Independent School District trustees start to consider changes to the funding model for the district’s two magnet schools, they are worried neighboring districts will open similar vocational training programs and take away needed students.

Both of Waco ISD’s Greater Waco academies have operated at a loss since they opened, district Chief Financial Officer Sheryl Davis said last week. Expenditures for the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy and Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy are expected to exceed revenue by $609,333 this year.

“That’s the type of activities, I believe as a region, we should discourage,” Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson said, referring to Connally ISD’s new partnership with McLennan Community College to offer health care courses, as an example. “What we don’t want is five years from now, several other districts have created manufacturing or health care magnets.”

Connally has relatively low enrollment in the Waco magnets, career and technical education director Donna McKethan told trustees during a board meeting Thursday night. She said she is unsure of the exact number of students Connally’s program could have pulled away.

Waco ISD has discussed avoiding overlap in early college offerings with districts in the area, and those conversations need to continue, McKethan said.

Building-use fee

The board unanimously approved a $200 increase Thursday to the building-use fee GWAMA and GWAHCA students’ home districts will pay in 2017-18. The increase from $400 to $600 per student will help cover indirect building and administration costs, which would be $523 per student if the schools were at capacity.

The other $77 per student will go to expansions in the works for each academy. GWAMA will add a construction science academy, and an unused gym at GWAHCA will be converted into science labs to meet dual credit requirements.

The campuses offer dual credit courses and hands-on vocational training, and the fee increase is the first step the board has taken to pursue additional options to fund the schools.

The academies’ tuition rate of $2,900 will remain unchanged. The tuition is based on average daily attendance funding, but the tuition rate doesn’t cover direct program costs, which are estimated at $4,346 per a student, district documents state. The district will review tuition rates again in the 2018-19 school year.

Neither campus has reached full capacity, but keeping enrollment up is critical for the magnets to remain sustainable, Greater Waco Academies director Dale McCall said. Recruitment has become even more critical since an almost $6 million federal grant that helped get GWAMA started expired last year, McCall said.

Academy growth

GWAHCA will grow from 200 students last year to 220 this year, and GWAMA will grow from 185 students last year to 252 this year, he said.

Board president Pat Atkins said the schools probably won’t ever make money for the district, but there needs to be an important discussion between districts about supply and demand so the district doesn’t price itself out of the market.

“We do need to demonstrate the added value. I mean there’s got to be value added to the money they’re investing with us,” Atkins said. “This program, when we all pull our resources together, we can offer on a scale and with some of the unique offerings no one district has got.”

Discussion on other changes to the academies’ funding is expected to continue, Atkins said. The district could even revisit specifics of the funding model each spring, Davis said.

“I think the important thing is we look at a couple of options. I believe if we communicate with our partners about what our need is and what the projected need will be, everyone seems on board,” said Robin McDurham, a Waco ISD area superintendent who helps oversee the academies. “This just appears to be a good time to engage in this conversation now that the grant is gone and we have a clear picture four or five years into the program of what to expect.”

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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