Despite Recent Philanthropic Efforts, MN Charters Still Struggle to Find Facilities

August 24, 2016 • Krista Kaput

Rachel Ose Ngendakuriyo, founding director of Big Picture Twin Cities, which will open in the 2017-18 academic year in Brooklyn Center, originally wanted to open a school in the Phillips Community. Having taught in the community, she had deep ties and wanted to create a community school that would meet the needs of the community’s students. However, Ngendakuriyo was unable to find an appropriate facility, despite looking at hundreds of locations in the Phillips community and surrounding neighborhoods, which led to her relocating the school and changing its name.

Ngendakuriyo’s situation is not unique. Several charter school directors and board members across the state have had difficulty finding and securing an appropriate facility for their school. According to Curt Johnson, a senior fellow with Education Evolving and former founding board member with Level Up Academy, the school originally set out to find a facility in 2015, “Even with highly regarded professional help, we found it difficult to find in all the northeast metro a site truly suitable for a school.” He also indicated that when they found a facility, they were faced with renovation financing challenges, looming lease payments, and a long wait for lease aid to kick in from the state.

Local philanthropic support for charter facilities

Recognizing the difficulty of securing a facility as a serious barrier for Minnesota charter schools, a few of the state’s organizations have allocated resources to fix the problem. The Minnesota Business Partnership (MBP) and Nonprofits Assistance Fund (NAF) have partnered together to provide funds for the expansion of effective chartered schools in Minneapolis. In April 2015, the MBP loaned Hiawatha Academies the money to build a new school that is slated to open in the 2018-19 academic year.

Additionally, On April 6th, Minnesota Comeback announced a series of grants totaling more than $600,000 dedicated to expanding high-quality chartered schools and assisting principals with finding new facilities. The grant to help principals find new facilities went to the Minneapolis Real Estate and Facilities Office, which opened in December 2015 through the joint efforts of Minnesota Comeback, NAF, and IFF. The office’s purpose is to help new and growing chartered schools with facilities planning, development, and financing needs.

Barriers persist in finding and securing facilities

Despite the dedicated resources, charters still struggle to find and secure appropriate facilities. One of the reasons, according to Robin Toewe, director of Minneapolis Real Estate and Facilities Office, is that there is a very limited supply of facilities in Minneapolis for K-12 chartered school use. She indicated that the availability of parochial facilities available is shrinking as the demand for chartered school facilities grows and other facilities, like retail or commercial spaces, prove too expensive to renovate.

Another option chartered schools in Minneapolis have considered is locating in industrial zones. However, Toewe noted City of Minneapolis officials have determined that K-12 schools cannot be located in those areas due to concerns of environmental contamination by a facility’s previous use.

Another barrier in securing facilities is state law, which prohibits Minnesota charter schools from owning their own buildings. (After a chartered school has been in operation for six continuous years, they can form an affiliated building corporation which can purchase a facility). According to Toewe, it is challenging to convince an owner of a retail or commercial space to make the necessary renovations that a facility would require for K-12 use because of the risk that the chartered school might fail.

Facilities are not always ideal

Even when chartered schools are able to secure facilities, they are not always ideal. Carl Phillips, founding director of Northeast College Prep (NECP), struggled to find an appropriate facility when he was opening his school in the Northeast Minneapolis area for the 2014-15 academic year. According to Phillips, his search for an appropriate facility was extensive and ultimately the school ended up in a facility that mandated a three-year lease. However, due to growing enrollment, NECP outgrew the space after year two of their lease.

Phillips was able to find a new facility for their third year that is owned by the Charter School Development Corporation (CDC) and had been previously rented by the now-closed Carter G. Woodson Academy. However, if Phillips is unable to find a subleaser for the final year of the lease at their old site, Northeast College Prep will have to pay double rent, which will cost them an additional $177,000.

Another example is Jane Goodall Environmental Sciences Academy. According to special education teacher Anne Brakob, her school is “anxious” to move to a new facility due to the nature of their lease with True Friends Camp Courage. While the leadership and staff at the camp have been supportive of the school, the cabins that Goodall Academy rents Monday-Friday are rented out during the weekends to other campers. This poses a logistical problem, as many Friday evenings Goodall Academy has to secure their belongings and vacate the space, and then move back in Monday morning.

In order to rectify the problem, the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools (MACS) has, according to their weekly email, drafted legislation that would “allow eligible charter schools to directly own facilities and establish a state Charter School Bonding Authority to issue revenue bond for charter school facilities.”

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This post was updated on March 1, 2017