City's charter schools call new policy 'discouraging'

The Baltimore school board will no longer back loans for charter school facilities, a move that the city's coalition of charter operators calls "short-sighted" and said could deter those looking to open the in-demand schools.

The district has served as guarantor for three charter schools, City Neighbors, Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and the Baltimore Design School, to either purchase or conduct large renovations of their facilities.

But board members said now that they have the $1 billion task of rebuilding and renovating the school district's infrastructure ahead of them — a process that is financed by debt — the district cannot risk more capital improvement bills. And the deal lawmakers approved to finance the first phase of the district's 10-year plan will require an annual $20 million commitment from the system.

"When we all went down [to Annapolis], we were not kicking out any money. When we left, we had to put up $20 million," said school board Commissioner Marnell Cooper. "As a result of that, we needed to make a policy decision."

Ricarda Easton, executive director of Roots & Branches charter school and co-chair of the Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools, said in a statement that the coalition was "disappointed" by the board's decision.

"We are all serving Baltimore City School children," Easton said in the release. "There are a few charter schools currently in existence that would not have been able to obtain their facilities without BCPS as a guarantor on their loans. It is short-sighted to completely close this door to charter operators."

The issue spurred debate among school board members, and the one member who cast the lone dissenting vote this week against the policy said she believed it was unfair to charters that will want to follow other schools in financing their facilities' needs.

"I think it's very unfair treatment of our charter population," said school board Commissioner Tina Hike-Hubbard. "We celebrate these schools … and we're not allowing anyone else to have that experience in our district."

She argued that charter operators also supported the district's 10-year plan to rebuild the system's infrastructure. "If our charters … knew that we were no longer going to support them, they probably wouldn't have supported it," she said of the plan.

Per the state's charter law, charter schools have to secure their own facilities. Charter leaders say it has been difficult to find space and finance it.

Most operators buy or lease buildings from the school system, but if they want to renovate or purchase the buildings, they have to take out loans. Charter leaders say that most schools, because they're starting from scratch, don't have the collateral or credit history that allows them to borrow millions of dollars.

Easton said that other states offer an abundance of financing options compared to Maryland, which she attributed to shortcomings in the state's charter law. She also said federal start-up grants that used to be available to charters through the state, have dried up, leaving them with even less financial backing.

Calling charter schools an "integral part of the system," Easton said she anticipates the coalition will see less charter applications in the future. She added, "It is becoming too high a hurdle for potential new operators to commit to applying for a charter."

School board officials said the decision to no longer act as guarantors would have no bearing on charters' ability to open and operate in the district. More than 12,000 students attend charter schools in the city.

School board Commissioner David Stone, who once oversaw the district's charter office, said that while he supports charters, "we are not the First National Bank of Maryland."

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