The number of kids in the seats determines how many teachers ­Akron must employ, how many books to purchase, which buildings to open or close, number of buses on the streets and whether there are enough kids to field a team.

Every aspect of the operation is pegged to that one figure, but the district is having trouble knowing from week to week how many students it has.

“That number is constantly changing. Kids are constantly coming back and forth, which makes it’s more difficult to figure out our own enrollment,” Jack Pierson, treasurer for Akron schools, told the board this week. “Probably the biggest example of that would be our charter schools.”

The best estimate at the moment is that 364 more children, a jump of about 11 percent, may have departed Akron schools for charters this year over last.

That’s enough to empty a small elementary school building, to fill about seven school buses, or to eliminate about a dozen teachers.

But it’s not simple to adjust: The departing children are spread across the entire school system, grade levels and geography.

As of late September, state financial reports indicated to Pierson that more than 3,600 Akron students may have chosen publicly funded, privately run charter schools over Akron.

That’s 13 percent of all students living in Akron, but not nearly as dramatic as Cleveland, where it is nearly a third of all school-age children.

“This year it definitely jumped up. I was very surprised at the jump in charter schools. That number is higher than what I expected to see,” Pierson said, explaining to the board the difficulty of appropriating funds based on fluctuating enrollment figures.

As Akron schools enter the last leg of a districtwide construction program that included consolidation of many cluster schools, administrators face a continually declining and dispersed student population. Officials use the phrase “right-size” when talking about the need to match services and facilities with fluctuating enrollment.

In discussing the impact on expenditures, Pierson said the line item for wages has declined in recent years, but purchased services — such as busing for charter-school students — has been on the rise.

For example, the district is spending an additional $262,000 this year simply because children attending charters last year are attending different schools this year, and their new routes are more costly.

New charter schools

There are nine new charter schools in Akron this year. Among the 21 now in operation in Summit County, for-profit management companies operate all but one.

Among the nine new, Middlebury Preparatory Academy on Kent Street and Colonial Preparatory Academy on Fifth Street simply moved from another location. The other seven are new organizations, although four of them are operated by the same management company in the same building. The name has changed.

Middlebury and Colonial are among 10 Ohio charter schools suing Akron-based White Hat Management, which had been hired to run the schools. The boards of the schools alleged that White Hat’s fees took most of the state funding, but the company declined to account for how the money was spent.

The buildings vacated by Middlebury and Colonial have been reopened as White Hat schools that have dropped “Hope” from the names to become Brown Street Academy and University Academy.

Another privately run school, Imagine Akron Academy, is opened in the same location as Romig Road Community School, which was forced by the state to close last spring because of poor academic performance. Imagine Akron will be managed by the same company that managed the academically failed school, Virginia-based Imagine Schools.

Akron Preparatory Academy opened in the former Goodyear headquarters and is operated by I CAN Schools, the only Summit County charter operated by a nonprofit company.

The Next Frontier Academy, which opened in mid-September, touts an agricultural curriculum and hopes to someday have a chicken coop and greenhouse.

Mosaica Education — an international for-profit charter-school operator with ventures in Dayton, Cleveland and Cincinnati — opened a signature STEAM Academy in Akron.

Detailed funding and enrollment for each of the new schools won’t be available until sometime next month. Until then, Akron must compile information and make its best guesses at revenues and expenditures nearly a third of the way through a fiscal year that began July 1.

Funding disparity

The state requires Akron schools to give an average of $7,760 to charter schools for each student who leaves. Akron receives from the state about $5,250 for each one who stays, according to financial reports from the Ohio Department of Education. The district must ask local voters to approve property taxes to fill the funding gap for its own students.

The greatest disparity between state funding for charter and traditional public schools exists in Columbus and Cincinnati, where the state funded traditional schools students at less than $3,500 on average and local charter school students at more than $6,900 last year, according to Ohio Department of Education records.

Akron schools paid $25.1 million to charter schools last year. This year, preliminary estimates are closer to $27 million, up from $19.6 million in 2008.

In all, Pierson told the board that funding for charter schools and private-school vouchers increased 50 percent over the past five years from $17 million to $50 million. Vouchers are an additional form of school choice.

Qualifying students attending a private school can have a portion of their tuition paid from Akron’s funds.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.