S.C. charter schools struggle with space, seek state remedy

jself@thestate.comNovember 29, 2013 

  • S.C. public charter schools The state’s first charter schools opened in 1997. Now there are 55 charters statewide, some in the state’s Public Charter School District and others authorized through public school districts. Public charter schools serve 20,000 students, almost 3 percent of the state’s K-12 public school students, according to a report. A look at the challenges charter schools reported, by the numbers:

    70 percent spend school operating money on facilities.

    60 percent lack dedicated library or media center.

    60 percent lack a full preparatory, federally compliant food kitchen.

    33 percent share space and reported inadequate access to specialized classrooms, such as libraries, science labs, and art or music rooms.

    33 percent share space and reported concerns with safety.

    42 percent serve middle-school students and lack access to a gymnasium.

    27 percent serve elementary students and lack playground access

    Source: An Analysis of the Charter School Facility Landscape in South Carolina, Charter School Facilities Initiative

South Carolina’s public charter schools struggle to find and pay for space and often end up without access to kitchens, libraries, or places for kids to play – a problem the S.C. General Assembly needs to address, according to a new report.

The challenges that the state’s 49 brick-and-mortar public charter schools face are outlined in a new report, published with help from the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina by the Charter School Facilities Initiative, a partnership of federal and state charter school organizations.

Pattison’s Academy charter school for students with severe disabilities rents the back of a church in West Ashley for $5,800 a month, or about 9 percent of its annual budget.

Knowing the school could double the number of students who go there if space permitted, the school’s director, Sloan Todd, is looking for a new home. But finding affordable space that suits the school’s needs has been a challenge.

“We can’t just go in anywhere,” she said. “A two-story building is not where we want to be.”

Some S.C. charter schools lack access to playgrounds or gymnasiums, the report says. Others lack art rooms or science labs. Some charters do not have kitchens to prepare meals, forcing them to bring outside food in and miss out on federal reimbursements for students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.

But schools also lack the same remedies available to traditional public schools for meeting their own facilities’ needs.

Traditional public school districts by law can sell bonds to raise money to build new schools and pay for other capital needs such as technology or campus security.

But the state’s growing band of public charter schools do not have that option.

Instead, they must pay rent, mortgages or other facility costs using money that traditional public schools are free to direct toward the classroom, said Wayne Brazell, superintendent of South Carolina’s statewide Public Charter School District, home to fewer than half the state’s charter schools, including six online schools.

That puts the state’s charter schools, growing rapidly as innovative alternatives to traditional schools, at a disadvantage, Brazell said.

“Not only are we spending 30 percent of all operational funds on facilities, which traditional schools don’t have to spend, but also we don’t have capital for technology projects” such as buying computers for the classroom or upgrading security at school, he said.

The report found that 70 percent of the 49 public charter schools surveyed pay for space with operating dollars, money that could go to paying for teachers and classroom materials.

Thirty-eight percent of charter schools rent from a private landlord, 11 percent rent from a government entity other than a school district, 11 percent rent from a school district, and 16 percent own their buildings but are paying down debt on them.

A tough spot

In addition to financial challenges, public charter schools reported obstacles to offering physical education and recreation opportunities to their students.

Twenty-seven percent of public charter schools with elementary students lack a playground or access to one. Forty-two percent with middle-school students had no gymnasium for physical education, or access to one. More than 60 percent said they had no access to an athletic field.

Forty percent of charter schools share spaces with other entities: 27 percent share with traditional public schools, and the remainder share with churches, businesses or nonprofit organizations.

About half of the charters that share space said space deemed exclusive or shared created challenges to teaching, according to the report.

A third of the charters reported concerns with keeping children safe in shared space situations, and 30 percent said students lack access to specialized classrooms, such as science labs and art rooms.

Todd, of Pattison’s Academy in Charleston County, said she would like to move into unused space in an existing Charleston school. But whether that will happen is up to the school district.

The report also found that fewer than 30 percent of charter schools are located in district-controlled buildings, and only 15 percent of schools in school districts that have raised money through selling public bonds have benefited from those proceeds.

Seeking relief

Brazell, the charter school district superintendent, said the report shows the need for the General Assembly to provide some assistance to charter schools.

The state created a charter school loan program but never put any money into it, he said.

State education superintendent Mick Zais has said local communities should work together to solve charter schools’ facility needs.

“Local government, school districts, the business community and members of the General Assembly need to work together as one team looking at all of our options, to help meet the facility needs of our growing public charter schools,” Zais said in a statement provided by his spokesman Dino Teppara.

The report makes several recommendations for ways the General Assembly could assist charter schools in solving facility problems.

The recommendations include giving charter schools a per-pupil allocation for facilities, equal access to tax-exempt bonding authorities and access to loans through the state’s currently unfunded charter school facility loan program.

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