Elmira Charter School Hunts For A Building

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Iszard's Department Store once occupied one of the buildings under consideration for Finn Academy.

Charter schools are one of the issues expected to consume the New York State Legislature this year. Finding a building is one major hurdle charters face statewide. Elmira’s Finn Academy, the Southern Tier’s second charter school, is scheduled to open in August and still doesn’t have a building.

Three buildings are on the academy board’s short list: the former Ernie Davis Middle School, Elmira’s Federal Building — also known as the old post office — and what used to be Iszard’s Department Store.

Finn Academy’s Maggie Thurber recently took the school’s board on a tour of the former department store. She showed them how one of the floors would be split up into seven classrooms. Finn Academy needs space for a total of twenty-five classrooms.

All of the potential buildings need renovations to bring them in line with state rules. Thurber says that will be tricky because charters don’t get state money for buildings.

“We have no funding to do it,” she says. “I mean, every school has to do it, but they get tons of funding.”

Thurber says district schools get reimbursed for most of their building costs.

Once they open, charters get part of the per-student money the state gives to districts. But none of that money can pay for start-up building costs.

There are some options for charter schools to overcome the funding hurdle. Finn Academy has a grant on the way from the state. The federal government also offers grants for charter schools.

Another choice is private funding. Charter schools can partner with an organization, like a college or a museum, or a for-profit charter school company. But Thurber says so far Finn Academy is going it alone.

“It’s important to the state that we be able to demonstrate our ability to run our program without seeking private funding, so we have not sought private funding at this point,” she says.

That means Finn will borrow much of what it needs for a building.

Now, some people say this puts an unfair burden on charter schools. Five charter school families in Buffalo and Rochester certainly think so. They sued the state in September claiming funding inequities. Harold Hinds, with the Northeast Charter Schools Network, says money for buildings is just part of the case.

“In Buffalo in particular, charter school students receive about three-fifths of what their traditional public school counterparts receive,” he says.

The lawsuit essentially argues that because charters don’t get as much per-student funding, they should at least get help buying a building.

The rationale for the disparity is that districts still have to provide some services to students who leave for charter schools. And even if the district loses a few students, expenses don’t go down much.

“It may mean that instead of educating 20 students in a classroom, we’re educating 16 students in a classroom,” says Elmira City School District superintendent Hillary Austin, “So we need the same amount of teaching staff. However, we end up having less resources.”

And when it comes to buildings, David Little from the Rural Schools Association says giving charters less public money just makes sense.

“The whole idea, initially, was that charter schools were supposed to be a public-private partnership,” he says.

So they could get funding from the private partner. And in any case, Little says, building aid for charter schools is risky. Districts have a bond rating and government backing, but charters don’t.

“It’s really kind of venture capital with public money,” he says.

Back in Elmira, Maggie Thurber and the Finn Academy board are moving ahead with their state grant and loan plans. They have to settle on a building by February. Thurber is confident they’ll find a home.

“It has to be ok,” she says. “Because we’ve been given a charter from the state, and that’s kind of a ‘thou shalt’ provide education in this manner, according to this plan.”

Because charter schools are really about what happens inside the building. As hard as it may be at times to find those four walls.

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