Selected readings on US charter schools
Operators in overcrowded areas could tap new fund to buy vacant malls, convert them into classrooms
Under a preliminary proposal discussed by school board member Will Pinkston, Metro would establish a new fund — the first of its kind here — that charter operators could tap to secure facilities in exchange for opening in parts of town where the district’s public schools are the most overcrowded.
That area is southern Davidson County. And taking a cue from a new charter school plan adopted by the Metro school board in November, the district already has asked for charter proposals there next spring.
Pinkston, who has framed the idea as only a concept at this stage, said the fund could range between $1 million and $2 million in capital funds. He sees two benefits: It gives charter organizations an added reason to go where the need is greatest, and it offers a cheaper alternative to constructing new buildings.
“In these exceedingly overcrowded areas of the county, we’re going to have to add capacity one way or the other,” he said. “We’re going to have to either build new classrooms or build a new school or two — or we can weave in charter operators in vacant commercial real estate and help them upgrade those facilities at a fraction of the cost for what it would take us to build new capacity.”
That gives operators of good charter schools an incentive to move into areas where overcrowding is at its worst, he said, and it frees up money that could be used to meet other building needs.
Charter schools are financed by public dollars but managed by private boards. Though per-pupil funds follow a student to his or her new school in Tennessee, they typically cover only operating expenses, leaving charters on their own for coming up with a building.
The “jump-start” funds, as Pinkston calls them, would target the purchase and rehabilitation of property instead of the rent some charters pay.
Discussions, which could turn into a formal proposal during spring budget talks, began with a school board member who has quickly become the top provocateur in the eyes of Nashville’s growing crowd of charter enthusiasts.
Pinkston drafted the November resolution, which limited 2014 charter proposals to South Nashville and takeovers at low-performing public schools — a measure roundly criticized by charter fans. In his latest proposal, though, he’s tried to address a much-publicized hurdle for charter groups.
“Facilities are a big issue,” said Greg Thomson, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center, who called the possibility of a new fund “a very positive thing.”
Local school boards can authorize charters even before they have firmed up building plans. Locally, many charters opt to lease buildings from Metro, while others look for commercial property.
Thompson noted that Metro has the ability to issue bonds for facility and infrastructure needs. “Charters don’t have access to that pot of money as we speak,” he said.
Alan Coverstone, director of Metro’s Office of Innovation, which oversees the district’s charter schools, said a new charter facilities fund could take on different forms. He said he would like to see other community partners in the conversation as well, opening the door for public and private dollars to build the fund.
‘A real win-win’
The idea, he said, should be to build a fund that would extend the district’s financial reach during the period when charter startups are most at risk.
“It’s a good way of financing the long-term capital growth that’s inevitable in a growing system,” Coverstone said.
Better charters would be drawn in by the chance for more revenue, he said. And it could also help sustain building funds over the long haul.
“It has the potential to be a real win-win and, frankly, to put Nashville way ahead of other cities,” Coverstone said.
Other cities and states offer incentives for charters, according to Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — through grants, by opening up existing school buildings for free, by raising the amount spent per pupil on quality charters and by absorbing some of their debt.
Chicago, for example, has a revolving loan fund for charter facilities to help renovate buildings, and so does Indianapolis.
Michael Hayes, chairman of the school board’s Capital Needs Committee, acknowledged that many cities have funds to attract high-performing charter operations. But he said a “first step” in Nashville should be to look at the district’s current buildings and explore their potential as charters.
He wants to see hard numbers, he said, but added, “I’d love to hear more about the idea.”
The idea dawned on Pinkston, who represents parts of South Nashville on the school board, on a recent drive down Nolensville and Murfreesboro pikes. It was hard to miss the glut of vacant and abandoned stores.
“It costs us less and it adds capacity faster,” he said. “It’s an adaptive use of commercial real estate, and it’s a community-redevelopment play.”
Source: The Tennessean – by Joey Garrison