JEFFERSON COUNTY - Tens of thousands of Colorado parents choose charter schools for their kids' education.
What many don't realize is their child's school could be in danger of closing before they graduate.
9Wants to Know spent the past two months digging into charter school financial problems after parents sent us a newstip.
One of the Colorado's oldest charter schools, the Collegiate Academy in Jefferson County, found itself in serious financial trouble this year.
After 19 years of relative stability, the school had to lay off teachers, cancel classes, and cut everyone's pay.
Parents asked 9Wants to Know to investigate how things got so bad so quickly.
9Wants to Know found many charter schools, just like this, are getting a tough lesson in finance.
80,000 Colorado students are enrolled in charter schools, which offer curriculums many parents feel are superior to traditional public schools.
"It's a hands-on approach where the teachers care," said Nate Faudel who has two daughters in the Collegiate Academy.
But charter schools can quickly end up in trouble, catching students and parents off guard.
"I'm really concerned. There's a lot of money missing and it doesn't make sense," Faudel said.
Nate and his wife Vikki Faudel are worried about budget problems at Collegiate Academy, announced to parents in December.
"That's my biggest fear. That friends of mine will lose their jobs and my daughter won't graduate," Vikki Faudel said.
A $300,000 budget shortfall forced the school to make emergency cuts.
Four teaching positions were eliminated; the staff took an 8 percent pay cut, and several elementary and high school classes were cancelled.
"The students are really worried," Collegiate student Jackie Hawkins said.
Hawkins says rumors are rampant.
"[Rumors are] that they're going to close. [I'm worried] that I'm going to kind of lose all my friends my senior year," Hawkins said.
Collegiate Academy Board Members George Metanias and Sandra Osborn say the school faced its own mini fiscal cliff, but is not in danger of closing.
They blame years of over spending on everything from classes to the cafeteria.
"The savings account wasn't there anymore. Before you know it we ended up where we're at today," Metanias said.
The school got an emergency loan of $150,000 from the JeffCo school district, and they're not alone.
9Wants to Know has learned, in the last 14 years, four other JeffCo charter schools found themselves in the red from $125,000 to $500,000.
Diana Huffman served on the Collegiate board for more than a decade before stepping down this spring.
"It's a problem with all charter schools. A lot of charter schools have very tight budgets," Huffman said.
A few years ago, the state paid charter schools about $7,000 per student each year. Now it's closer to $6,000 and dropping.
"As a charter school we automatically get less funding than a typical public school," Osborn said.
Charter schools have to pay for their own buildings, on average about $700 a year per student.
Colorado League of Charter Schools president Jim Griffin says 29 charter schools have shut down in the last 15 years.
With 200 charter schools statewide, that's about a 15 percent chance your kid's school could close.
"There are schools that have closed really just for financial reasons. It's tough. It's tough on the families and kids and staff and people that have put a lot into their school. It is part of the charter school bargain though. Closure is part of what happens," Griffin said.
Metanias says charter school parents can help by getting involved. He encourages parents to volunteer, attend board meetings, and donate if possible
"Sometimes you learn the hard way, but we've learned. It's a new day," Metanias said.
The Faudel's say their daughter, and 470 other students, rely on Collegiate Academy which they consider a second home.
"It's like a family," Vikki Faudel said.
"Well worth the time, well worth the drive, and a great investment in their future," Nate Faudel said.
The Colorado League of Charter Schools says parents need to ask questions about enrollment and revenue.
But more importantly, make sure the school's academic mission is a good fit for your child.
Charter schools have the flexibility to be more innovative.
With that comes financial challenges many schools have struggled to overcome.
(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)