In charter school tension, a pathway to long-sought facilities funding

After moving into a dusty school building owned by a local church two years ago, Brooklyn Prospect Charter School’s Daniel Rubenstein had big plans. He needed to replace the school’s outdated fire alarms and upgrade the bathrooms and sinks, which were built for elementary school-aged students. He also wanted to install science labs for his growing high school.

Between those projects and renovating a Downtown Brooklyn school building where Rubenstein is running an elementary school, the costs quickly added up. After the renovations, rent, and operating costs associated with being in private school space, he said $2.6 million of his school’s $13 million operating budget went to facilities costs.

“It’s a huge burden,” said Rubenstein. “And it’s not fair.”

The disparity between what charter schools in private space and public space pay for their facilities has existed for years, especially in New York City, where 25,000 students attend 68 charter schools in private buildings. But the gap appears likely to narrow this year, with the state legislature poised to give charter schools access to state facilities funds for the first time.

Legislative sources say the proposal, which would resemble the state’s current $2.7 billion building aid program, is the most likely to pass out of a package of pro-charter school bills approved this month by the State Senate. Though no deal has been struck, they say discussions are now focused not on whether charter schools should get facilities funds, but on just how how much money they would be able to tap into.

The change would let charter schools apply for state reimbursement for capital expenses — including rent. Charter schools would be reimbursed at the same rate, about half, as the city receives for many of the capital projects it asks the state to subsidize. Last year, the city received $1 billion in state building aid.

If the proposal makes it into state law, it would be the first significant effort to address a long-simmering funding equity issue that has state lawmakers have not made a priority until recently. Charter school advocates say New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his early challenges to the charter sector — including pledges to charge rent, a redirection of capital funding, and decisions to upend some charter school space plans — to thank for the legislative about-face. (De Blasio, who allowed several charter school space plans to proceed, publicly softened his tone on the charter school sector this weekend).

Charter advocates responded to de Blasio’s challenges by launching a multimillion dollar attack ad blitz and organizing a large protest in Albany that drew support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

“What de Blasio has done is he has ripped open a wound that has festered for 13, 14 years now, which is the issue of facilities,” said Northeast Charter Schools Network President Bill Phillips. “It’s a fundamental issue in chartering.”

The 1998 law that allowed charter schools in New York state did not give them access to the state capital funds, known as building aid, that subsidize district school construction and renovation projects.

Outside of New York City, where about 20,000 students attend charter schools, facilities costs are lower, and schools have been able to rent and renovate space without cutting as deeply into their per-pupil operating funds — though advocates say the burden is just as debilitating in the rest of the state. In New York City, where costs are relatively higher, the Bloomberg administration used a controversial space-sharing arrangement known as co-locations to give charter schools space inside of city buildings. This year, nearly two-thirds of the city’s 183 charter schools are co-located.

That leaves charter schools in private space, such as Brooklyn Prospect, paying out of their operating budgets for what co-located charter schools have gotten for free. In addition to rent, schools also have to pay for security guards, maintenance workers, energy bills and any facilities upgrades — expenses that for schools in public space are covered by the city’s operating budget and in its $12 billion five-year education capital spending plan.

In 2011, the city’s Independent Budget Office found a $2,300 per-pupil budget gap between charter schools in private space and district schools. A 2013 facilities report, published by NECSN, found that the gap was $1,650 for charter schools in Western New York, $957 in Central New York and $2,020 in the Capital Region.

“These are impossible issues for [charter schools] to deal with that had been masked by Bloomberg’s incredibly generous co-locations,” said David Umansky, CEO of Civic Builders, which constructs space for charter schools.

The showdown between de Blasio and charter school advocates inspired the State Senate to put forth a wide-ranging package of charter school legislation this year. Their budget proposal would increase funding for charter school students; essentially annul de Blasio’s reversals of three Success Academy charter school co-locations; allow charters to tap into state prekindergarten funds; and allocate millions in state-funded building aid for charter students currently in private space.

The far-reaching proposals have raised questions about whether the legislature is overstepping the bounds of the state’s school governance law, which gives control of the city’s schools to the mayor. (Cuomo heightened that concern when he said mayoral control should not allow the city’s mayor to “stop all charter schools.”) The proposals have also been criticized for focusing too much on a relatively small piece of the state’s public education system.

But their wide reach would turn giving charter schools access to state facilities funding — in the past has been an ambitious ask for the charter sector — into a compromise position for legislators.

The facilities proposal would not burden the city with new expenses, nor would it curtail mayoral control. Charter schools would not have their entire rent bills subsidized, potentially satisfying critics of the sector. And giving charter schools access to facilities funding would not require opening up the state’s charter school or school governance laws to a negotiating process that could have unpredictable results.

As budget negotiations conclude in the next several days, some advocates will be pushing back against the proposal to let charter schools get state building aid.

If there is a school facilities issue to be prioritized, it’s not helping charter schools, said Steve Allinger, legislative director for the New York State United Teachers. It’s to take care of students whose schools are so overcrowded that they must attend class in trailers.

“We’ve got kids, for the last 20 years, who have been shunted into trailers suffering from mold,” Allinger said. “That is how we should address the capital needs.”

Allinger’s sentiments echo those of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and education chair Catherine Nolan, who have come up with money to eliminate the trailers in their budget proposal. They and others say that if extra money is available in the state budget, it should go toward restoring programs and rehiring staff who were eliminated in cash-strapped districts.

A compromise on school building aid could include swapping funds to get rid of trailers in exchange for giving charter schools a piece of the facilities pie.

For now, Rubenstein is not counting on the state to help him add a playground to the roof of Brooklyn Prospect’s building — a $700,000 project that would cut deep into his operating budget for this year.

“We’re doing a huge fundraising campaign,” Rubinstein said. “I’m spending all my time going around to board members trying to get them to make pledges to this.”

This article has been updated to reflect facilities costs for privately-housed charter schools outside of New York City.