All Charters Are Equal, Some Charters Are More Equal Than Others (with apologies to George Orwell and the Animals)

 

In the Spring of 2014  Success Academy charter school founder Eva Moskowitz, was able to push legislation through the New York state assembly allowing her schools to have rent free space in NY’s public school buildings.  She was able to do this with the help of $5 million in funds from the Walton Family Foundation and the other usual ed “reform” suspects who also contributed $800,000 to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s re-election campaign.  Ms. Moskowitz was able to use her money to bring busloads of families to Albany to lobby the legislature and to pay for media advertisements.

Ms. Moskowitz could have saved herself a lot of trouble and a lot of money had she just come to Colorado where Colorado State Statute 22-30.5-101(c) states:

(c) In no event shall a charter school be required to pay rent for space which is deemed available, as negotiated by contract, in school district facilities. All other costs for the operation and maintenance of the facilities used by the charter school shall be subject to negotiation between the charter school and the school district.

Better yet, she could have come to Denver (tongue firmly implanted in cheek) where thanks to something called the District-Charter Collaboration Compact, the District commits, among many other things “to ensuring that all Denver students, including those in charter schools, have access to adequate facilities.” The District also commits “to ensuring equitable resources for charter schools. This includes not only per pupil revenue, but to the greatest extent possible, an equitable share of all other district resources, including Title funds, existing bond funds, application opportunities for future bond funds, mill levy funds, curriculum and materials purchased with federal funds, and grants for programs that could benefit charters.” Superintendent Tom Boasberg, the Office of School Reform and Innovation and ALL charter schools signed this compact.  The elected Board of Education never signed nor voted on this Compact, yet it has been the primary operating “reform policy” since its introduction in December 2010. Who is representing the interests of the traditional schools?  Shouldn’t it be the Board?  When asked about the legality of such a policy, the District’s legal office answered, “the Compact does not create legal obligations, but rather is a statement of shared beliefs, principles, and aspirations, as the District and the charter schools move forward in their relationship.” Still, shouldn’t the elected Board have voted on this operational-altering policy?

So, how has this “Compact” played out for Denver’s 57 charters? Well, if you are part of the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) charter management organization (CMO) or the Strive CMO, pretty darn well. Ultimately, DSST will have seven 6-12 grade campuses scattered throughout the city. By the Fall of 2014 there will be six middle schools and three high schools. in operation. (Full disclosure. When I was on the Board, I fought very hard for one of these schools to be placed in an historic DPS building. The neighborhood wanted this school, the placement was at the cross section of four school board districts, which meant the school could be naturally integrated, the building  had been abandoned since the mid 2000’s and was was an eyesore and safety hazard). To date, Strive has six middle schools, two high schools with a third recently approved, and two not yet opened elementary schools. Eleven Strives and nine DSSTs for a total of 20 out of 57 charters. Over 1/3 of all of Denver’s charters will be DSSTs or Strives. All but one of these facilities will be paid for by Denver taxpayers.

Denver taxpayers have been very generous to Denver Public Schools. The last three General Obligation Bonds (2003, 2008, 2012) in the amounts of $310 million, $454, million and $466 million respectively have not deterred voters from overwhelming support. Of those totals, $7 million was designated in 2003 to charter schools, $68.5 million in 2008 and $190 million in 2012  to adding “new schools capacity” (building new schools and renovating old buildings). This should open a pdf.  Look at page 28 for details.  Those three investments total $265,500,000. Charter schools have received by far the most new schools money.  DSST and Strive have received most of that money.  See for yourself. Below is a list of Denver’s charter schools with the District facility placements.  Please note the green colored schools have made their own arrangements as to facilities, including some ownership.  The other charters are in  DPS offered, owned or leased faciliies and therefore taxpayer funded.

 

Let’s delve deeper into the charter school facility funding.  From the District-provided spreadsheets below  you will see just how DSST and Strive have fared.  These two charter management organizations have to date received $127,800,000 with either $20 million or $41.2 million more committed to them.

 

Here are four more projects already promised.

School Amount outstanding Reference
DSST at Byers $6,730,000 $20 million from 2012 bond. $13,270,000 spent. Bond Oversight Committee Meeting, Feb. 5, 2014, p. 36.
Strive MS at Montbello $10,000,000 Bond Oversight Committee Meeting, May 7, 2014, p. 28 SRA and Capacity Need. It says $10-13 million . I used $10.
Strive ES in SW $7,300,000 Ibid., p. 34. Facility total 9.4-11 million . I used $10. Purchase of property 2.7 from document above, citing Ruby Hill Strive purchase.
Strive HS st Evie Dennis $21,200,000 Ibid., p.28
TOTAL $45,230,000 Committed but not spent bond money

 

The new third Strive high school was not included in the District spreadsheets, since it was not yet approved by the Board when these spreadsheets were sent in mid May.  That vote occurred in June 2014.  As expected the school was approved; the amount of 2012 bond money allocated for such a facility was $21.2 million. I believe the higher number to be correct, but it is possible the lower one is correct.  Depending on which number you use, $151,830,000 or $173,030,000, or 57.2% or 65%, DSST and Strive are receiving a very large proportion of the $265,500,000 new school money.

Now for two charters I am familiar with that are equal but not as equal: the Denver Language School (DLS) and Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS).  These two schools have several similarities. Both schools originally applied to be district run new schools; each was turned down as such and told to come back as a charter school. Both are currently housed in formerly closed elementary schools.  Both have secondary school components to their charters, hence the need for secondary school sized facilities:  full-sized gymnasium, science and tech labs, libraries. (Denver Language School has a grade configuration of K-8, GALS has  a 6-12 configuration). Each school actually embodies the original charter school idea: to provide a different kind of education from the traditional school, one that Districts can not always easily provide.

Unlike DSST and Strive, both of these charters have had facility challenges from the outset. The District did not offer to build or renovate a facility for either of them. After months of searching DLS was offered a closed neighborhood elementary school. For the first few years this was close to perfect. However, it was clear from the outset DLS would need a bigger facility because the school’s capacity of 362 would never be able to serve a K-8 whose model depends on two classes of Spanish and Mandarin for each grade level. The dual language immersion model also requires a strong middle school program to assure language proficiency . The 2012 bond did provide an addition of five classrooms at a cost of $1.9 million. The DLS community is very appreciative of the new space, but it falls woefully short of what is needed to fulfill its charter promise.  Its Board of Directors has spent untold hours trying to find appropriate facilities for its students. It has received little help from the Denver Public Schools.  In fact the District has told DLS to raise the necessary money or to find a capital partner to help finance the transaction. How has DLS solved for this situation? It has reduced the number of kindergartners so there will be only one class for each language. This in spite of the school’s clear model of front loading the early years to accommodate attrition. The amount in need? Less than $5 million.

GALS has faced even more facility challenges than DLS. GALS opened its doors in the Fall of 2010, and until the Fall of 2013 was temporarily located in a church. GALS was chartered as a 6-12 school. GALS, too,  is very grateful for its new permanent facility. However, it suffers from facility constraints mentioned above.  It too, has been told to raise its own money or find private bond companies to finance its high school addition. GALS is starting its high school program in a few short weeks. The back and forth between the school and the District has gone on for an entire year. To date the District will only say it hopes to have a solution soon. How much money are we talking about? Best guesstimate is between 8 and 10 million dollars.

So, there you have it. Equal and more equal. A “Compact” intended to “level the playing field” for charters.  But as we can see some charters are more equal than others.   And as the numbers of charters increases, connections among various Colorado government officials, “reformers” and the Denver Public Schools become even more important and relevant. Just last month the Mayor’s Chief of Children’s Affairs left the city to become – drumroll, please – the Chief of External Outreach for Strive charter schools. Her previous “reform” job was as Colorado’s first statewide Director of Stand for Children. She is following the former DPS Chief of Staff into Denver’s education “reform” world, the latter of whom left the District to become Colorado’s executive director for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Denver’s former Manager of Safety is now the DPS General Counsel, followed by the former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives who this month started as the Chief Financial Officer for Denver Public Schools. The former Speaker just happened to be the deciding vote moving “teacher effectiveness” legislation, SB-191, out of committee in 2009.  Legislators and voters beware.  All the players are in place for a Denver Public Schools lead legislative agenda which will undoubtedly try to further this national “education reform” model.   And when you add in a 6-1 nationally financed Board of Education, who needs actual mayoral control of your school board? It will be interesting to follow these new careers as more and more taxpayer money goes to “equal” and “more equal” charters. What would the animals think?

A note about this post.  I could never have added the technology pieces of this post without the extraordinary help and patience of my tech mentor, Joe Heitkamp.  Sometimes referred to as “Saint Joe,” he has walked and talked me through Google Drive, Xcel spreadsheet transfers, uploading and downloading documents, linking documents and actually posting the blog.  And he has repeated the steps many times, as you can imagine if you are of my generation!  So to Joe an enormous THANK YOU.  You aren’t done yet!

 

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