Charter schools are growing in Buffalo, but they still face two big hurdles: finding suitable space to locate and the funds to pay for it.
That’s why the area’s charter schools are revving up their lobbying campaign today and pressuring the state to pony up some form of building aid, like it does for traditional public schools.
At the very least, advocates are asking for the arrangement New York already has with many charters downstate.
In New York City, for example, new or expanding charters can ask for unused space within the school district, or request other public or private space at no cost to the charter, explained Jason Zwara.
“Every dollar (charters) have to pay to rent a building or pay down their mortgage, that’s a dollar that doesn’t go to instruction,” said Zwara, a policy manager for the Northeast Charter Schools Network, the advocacy organization for charters in Buffalo.
It’s just the latest statement charter schools are making in Buffalo.
Two new charters opened in Buffalo this year, two more are scheduled to open next year and at least two more are in the pipeline, bringing the region’s total to 23, after years of relatively consistent numbers.
These days, one in five children who attend a public school in Buffalo go to a charter — an estimated 9,000 kids.
In fact, the Buffalo Board of Education — frustrated by the loss of more students and funding to new charters — asked the state in September to issue a three-year moratorium on charters in the city. The request was denied.
“Charters aren’t growing because they just want to grow — there’s a demand,” said Duncan Kirkwood, Western New York advocacy manager for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. “But that growth is stifled, because of a lack of funding for facilities.”
Funding for facilities will be a major push for charter advocates, who scheduled a press conference Tuesday morning at Aloma D. Johnson Charter School on Jewett Parkway. They will call on state lawmakers to address the issue during this legislative session in Albany.
The advocacy group also will release a new report outlining their building frustrations.
Charters are publicly funded, independently run schools that operate with greater flexibility than “traditional” public schools. They receive $13,005 per pupil from the students’ home district.
But unlike traditional public schools, charters don't receive building aid. On average, a charter uses about 13 percent of its operating budget to pay for facilities, the report said. Some charters, according to the report, pay as much as 35 percent.
And that’s only half the problem.
Securing locations also is difficult, particularly upstate, where most buildings aren’t configured to hold a school.
Vacant school buildings are either in too poor a condition to rehabilitate or districts are resistant to sell them to charters at an affordable price, the report said. Properties in highest demand are scooped up by private developers who have the means to pay cash.
“There’s a couple different ways schools do it,” Zwara said, explaining how charters do manage to open or expand. “Some just find favorable developers that own property and are willing to work with them. They’re willing to start the lease as soon as school starts, because the school won’t receive money until their first month of operation.
“Some work with nonprofit partners that accommodate,” he said. “Some can get grant money that helps them with facility costs. There are some creative solutions, but all of them require some kind of unconventional means.”
Elmwood Village Charter School in Allentown acquired the former Cardinal Dougherty High School on Hertel Avenue and reopened it this year as a second location. And Tapestry Charter, a K-to-12 school on Great Arrow Avenue, broke ground in August for a new elementary school.
“It’s not easy,” Kirkwood said. “Doing that construction takes away from being able to add more teachers or more staff. It comes at a cost.”
The advocacy group proposes that charters have access to the state’s building aid fund, which reimburses schools for purchasing, renovating and, in some cases, leasing buildings.
Another alternative is for the state to consider policies that would give charter schools direct access or right of first refusal to vacant or underused, publicly owned school buildings.
Or, advocates said, the state could simply expand the legislation offered in New York City to include all of the state’s charter schools.
“That’s our preference because it’s the easiest to do,” Zwara said. “It’s also the most flexible. The other solutions might work for some schools, but not for others.”