Charter Schools Hunt for a Home While Buildings Stay Vacant

With charter school enrollment on the rise, the hunt for building facilities to accommodate student body growth is a challenge.

But charters’ facility problems are not due to a lack of vacated schools or property. Buildings are for sale, just not if the interested buyer is a charter school. According to a piece appearing in The Wall Street Journal, charter and private schools in Wisconsin have been unsuccessful in their attempts to purchase vacant public school buildings because of pushback from district leadership and teachers’ unions.

St. Marcus Lutheran, which has a student body of around 900 and ranks in the top 1% statewide among schools with a majority of low-income and minority students, offered $1 million in 2013 to buy Malcolm X Academy, a large public-school campus that had been closed since 2008. The Milwaukee Board of School Directors said no and instead chose to sell the site to 2760 Holdings LLC, a newly formed corporation registered to a pair of construction-business operators. That deal fell through, and in 2016 the school district opted instead to spend $10 million relocating the struggling Rufus King Middle School and its roughly 400 students to the Malcolm X campus.

St. Marcus then tried to purchase the vacant Lee School for the appraised value plus property taxes. Mayor Tom Barrett blocked the deal by demanding that St. Marcus pay an additional $1.3 million—because, he said, the school was in the choice program.

In November 2016 Rocketship, a charter school that performs in the top 5% statewide, attempted to buy an MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools] building. In the final stage of the negotiation, MPS demanded that Rocketship, which is chartered by the city, obtain a charter from MPS instead. This would allow the district more control over the school. In 2017, because of the ultimatum and protests by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the deal fell through. (MPS declined to comment.)

Charter schools in Minnesota also face home-finding hardships. State law limits how charters obtain and finance a school facility, forcing them to overcome barriers traditional public schools do not face.

Charter schools must lease space for facilities.

Traditional public school districts generally own the majority of school buildings. If charters want to use these spaces, they must lease the facility. But public school districts are not eager to help their competition grow. Neither Minneapolis nor St. Paul districts lease space to charter schools despite numerous empty and underutilized buildings, as reported by the Star Tribune.

Charter schools cannot own buildings directly if they use public funds to purchase or build a facility.

The first charter school law passed in Minnesota in 1991 prohibits charters from owning land or buildings if public funds are involved in the purchasing process. The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools’ gives its take on the “why” behind this policy:

Folks often ask: why did the legislature prohibit the use of public funds for the purchase of facilities for public charter schools? The answer has both philosophical and practical reasons.

On a practical level, the concept of charter schools was a new, untested idea in 1991, and legislators did not want the state to take on the financial liability of any outstanding mortgages and bonds if a charter school closed. Nor did the state want to be saddled with the responsibility for disposing of the land or building of a closed school. On a philosophical level, the concept of charter schools was that charter schools were to be focused on creating new and different learning opportunities and to be labs for innovative methodologies, forms of measurements, assessments, and accountability, and professional opportunities for educators and not be encumbered by the conventions of education, including building ownership.

Charter schools are eligible for lease aid to assist in paying the lease costs.

Lease aid was enacted by Minnesota’s legislature because charters cannot levy for facilities. But when the state budget crisis hit in 2003, “the pupil lease aid rate was reduced by 20 percent from its original level, and that cut has never been restored.” Consequently, charters often find themselves spending significant operating dollars on buildings and directing money away from instruction and classroom support to pay for their facilities.

Charter schools may have an affiliated nonprofit building corporation that owns the building and leases to the school if the school meets certain criteria.

While no charter school in the state directly owns land or buildings, around 24 schools have “affiliated building companies owing [sic] facilities and subsequently leasing space to their affiliated school.”

Across the country, charter schools have taken their place as an established provider of public education. Improving their accessibility to use abandoned school buildings or those with unused space will help them grow and better serve the education choices of numerous parents and children.