Report: Charter schools struggle to find and pay for facilities

The News Journal | by Jessica Bies

Charter schools in Delaware struggle to find suitable buildings and to finance facility and construction costs, a new report says.

Many are shoehorned into old office buildings, churches or strip malls where rent is high — an average of $1,545 per student — and amenities are lacking. Some do not have full kitchen facilities, lunchrooms, auditoriums, specialized instructional space, playgrounds, gyms or even areas where buses can pull up and safely drop off kids.

One, which was located in a Red Clay School District building, only paid $329 per student in rent.

“It’s been 22 years, going on 23 now, that the charter school law has gone into place. I think this data shows we should revisit the law, especially around buildings,” said Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network. She ideally wants the state to spend more money on charter facilities.

The state of Delaware does not provide per-pupil assistance to charter schools for facilities costs, which means those expenses must be covered by the general education budget the state allots to all schools on a per-student basis, the report said.

That’s a problem because it sucks up money that could be spent in the classroom, Massett said. Her organization and the nonprofit that produced the report, the Charter School Facilities Initiative, are urging public policy changes they say would lead to a more equitable public school facilities system.

Legislators such as Kim Williams and John Kowalko have railed against giving money to charter schools for major capital projects, however.

The state gives money to school districts for renovations and construction, but those buildings are technically owned by the state. Many charter schools are located in privately-owned facilities.

“Taxpayers want their tax dollars to be used wisely and transparently,” said Williams, D-Newport, wondering out loud how the state would recoup any losses if it invested in a charter school and then it closed.

“What if the charter school fails and they sell it?” she said.

She was also concerned the report says charter schools are using the state funding they do receive to pay for facilities costs. Williams said the law around such funding is clear and that charter schools need to be prepared to fundraise and apply for grants to pay for their buildings.

If they have a problem with that, maybe they shouldn’t open in the first place, she said.

“They know this going in,” she said. “It’s not like it’s a huge surprise.”

Charters struggle to find space

Massett said many charter schools do get grants and raise large amounts of money to fund construction projects.

“We’ve been able to make it work,” she said.

But some grants are only available to schools in rural areas and some federal funds require a state match. In their absence, charter schools take out large loans, or bonds, which they then have to pay back.

About 89 percent of Delaware charter schools had rental or loan payments for their facilities in 2015-16. The study found each school spent a median $230,000 on capital expenses over the past five years.

Much of the money goes toward retrofitting buildings into schools or expanding them to house more students and meet the demand for school choice. In 2015-16, 46 percent of Delaware charter schools were located in facilities that were not originally constructed for educational purposes.

For instance, Freire Charter School is located in what used to be the Blue Cross office building on West 14th Street in Wilmington. The popular and fast-growing Odyssey Charter School in 2015 took out $34.6 million in bonds to obtain 35 acres of the Barley Mill property in Greenville formerly owned by the DuPont Co.

It is currently fundraising to build an athletic, arts and science center.

Though Delaware has a “Charter School Performance Fund” that is supposed to help schools that have developed high-quality plans for start-up or expansion, it hasn’t been funded for two years, Massett said.

Some lawmakers, like Kowalko, don’t believe the fund should exist at all and that charters sap much-needed resources from the traditional school system.

“My biggest concern right now is the traditional schools are so unfunded it’s almost shameful,” said Kowalko, D-Newark. “I am adamantly opposed to any kind of capital funding for charter schools.”

About 25 percent of charter schools had to delay their opening date due to facilities-related issues such as financing, acquisition of property or land, construction or the lack of available facilities in the desired geographic area, the report said.

Newark Charter School opened in 2001 and for the first two years of operation held classes in rented trailers on land leased from the International Reading Association in Newark.

It later used a combination of bonds and private donations to build its current facilities.

Massett said with state budget constraints — Delaware faced a $350 million deficit last year — she understands the General Assembly might not be willing to fund charter schools’ facility costs right now.

But even so, she thought there were ways to operate more efficiently, like letting charter schools use buildings left empty by the state.

The Charter School Facilities Initiative report found Delaware charter schools struggle to obtain space in district facilities, even in parts of the state where district buildings are vacant and underutilized. There are both practical and economic advantages to using a district facility that is already designed to function as a school, the report said.

Only one charter school — The Charter School of Wilmington — was located in a district facility in 2015-16, despite the fact that 18 percent of charter schools reported a nearby vacant district facility and another 29 percent of charter schools reported a nearby facility that was significantly underutilized.

The Charter School of Wilmington only pays $329 per student to rent space from the Red Clay School District. One charter school, the Early College High School, is housed at Delaware State University and pays no rent.

Charter schools that owned their building paid an average of $992 per student.

The state Education Department is required by law to publish a list of all vacant and unused buildings and portions of buildings owned by the state or school districts that may be suitable for charter schools.

Last year’s survey of buildings, provided by the Education Department upon request, lists no facilities or space available for charter schools, even at school districts known to be operating under their stated capacity. It listed district buildings and not those owned by other government agencies or departments.

This year’s report is not yet complete, and DOE said it is waiting on responses from seven districts.

“When charters can find suitable locations inside vacant district schools, everyone wins,” Massett said. “Districts receive rent money for a property that otherwise would have sat empty. The charter school spends less on a lease agreement. Both sides have more to spend on education than on buildings.”

Other findings

Other key findings from the Charter School Facilities Initiative study include:

  • More than 7,770 students were on charter school waitlists in 2015-2016.
  • 43 percent of charter schools reported that their current facility does not have enough space for their projected enrollment in the next five years.
  • 54 percent of charter schools did not have an athletic field on campus and 43 percent of charter schools did not have a gym on campus.
  • 71 percent of charter schools lacked a full-preparatory kitchen facility, leading to 64 percent of charter schools purchasing meals from an outside catering service.
  • 29 percent of charter schools serving elementary students did not have a playground on campus.

In 2015-16, Delaware charter schools served over 14,000 students – or 10.4 percent of the roughly 136,000 public school students statewide, the report said.

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