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District to charters: Don’t try to expand and get a building discount

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

How badly do Philadelphia’s charter school operators want the chance to buy closed or vacated District facilities?

We’re about to find out.

According to the School District’s proposed Adaptive Reuse Policy, charter operators are to be offered a tradeoff: if they want to be eligible for a discount of up to 25 percent off the fair-market value for a coveted building, they “must agree not to seek additional charter seats” on top of what they already have.

Though District officials say this is not an opening gambit in their attempts to control charter growth through the facilities process, they clearly must find a way to deal with charters’ aggressive push for expansion. Several charters are suing the District for imposing enrollment caps that they say are illegal. So far, the charters have the Pennsylvania Department of Education on their side.

But finding access to affordable facilities that can be used as schools is also a major challenge for charter operators.

The proposed policy is still in draft form and this provision may not survive. District officials say they want to hear feedback from charter operators.

The public can also give their input into the proposed policy at a series of District-run community meetings, at upcoming School Reform Commission meetings, and via the District’s website. To help inform and encourage such public engagement, the Notebook and PlanPhilly have launched a new reporting partnership to cover the facilities master planning process.

Last week, District Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd and consultant Tracy Richter of DeJong-Richter sat down with the Notebook for an extensive 90-minute interview. Each day this week, the Notebook and/or PlanPhilly will run an edited excerpt of the transcript from that interview focusing on a key question about how the facilities master plan will work in practice. (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday)

Today’s question: What does the proposed facilities master plan mean for charter schools?

Notebook: How do you hope this planning process will help the District to manage its relationship with charter schools?

Richter: I think that by being able to provide long-term strategies about where students are going to be located, where schools are going to be located, will actually help identify for charter schools where there’s opportunities for students to have choice…Also, I think what it’s going to do is clear up confusion around decision-making processes as to what goes into facilities planning. For instance that, if a school wants to grow a grade or grow into a middle school, what impact does that have on the public school sector? So there’s not just, "we need a grade, let’s take a grade." There has to be a domino [effect].

Notebook: Some charter school operators are suing to have enrollment caps lifted, and they are really disputing the District’s right to manage their growth. What levers does the facilities master planning process give the District to try to retain that role?

Floyd: I wouldn’t look at this in terms of leverage one way or the other…One of things we’ve said as part of this plan is to be able to provide both a District pathway as well as charter pathways as well as turnaround pathways in this process…For the District, it’s an opportunity for us to look at the types of programs we offer, how are we being competitive, how can we get families to continue to support District-operated schools or continue to opt in to District-operated schools?

We know that schools will close and buildings will become available. And so we have some charter schools that have expressed interest in District facilities and have said that the process to be able to acquire those facilities is difficult…It’s not clear to them that everybody has equal footing in this. So I think one of the other things we are trying to do is be better partners with charter operators, that says if you are interested in a District facility, we’re going to outline a much more clear and fair process to work with us and make that available to you.

Notebook: Why does the proposed reuse policy include the provision that charter schools could get a 25 percent discount on a facility, but only if they agree not to seek to expand?

Floyd: I think there’s a policy that’s in place that governs charter modifications, and I think the reason we put it in here is…we didn’t want to necessarily co-mingle the modification piece to an interest in a facility…The way that the policy is right now, it keeps those things separate. We will be sharing this with charter school operators because we may get some feedback that says we don’t like that.

Notebook: There are some very aggressive charter operators who are saying "we have the right to grow regardless of whether you authorize it through your process or not"…[Is] the District trying to say if we are going to lose some of our ability to manage your growth, one of the levers we do have is access to our facilities? So in order to give access to facilities, we’re going to limit your ability to grow outside of our process.

Floyd: I don’t think that was honestly the intent, no…We want to be good partners to charter schools.

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