Building Woes Plague Okla. Charter Schools

By Sean Murphy

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (AP) – Enrollment in the growing number of charter schools is on the rise in Oklahoma, but the high cost of buildings and facilities is holding back the schools’ potential, supporters told lawmakers.

A joint meeting of House and Senate education committees examined the issue and looked for ways state lawmakers might be able to help find a funding source for charter school facilities.

Charter schools receive state funding on a per-pupil basis but are operated privately by an independent board and are free from many state mandates. The schools do not, however, receive any property tax funding and are unable to issue bonds to pay for buildings or other educational materials.

As a result, charter schools are forced to subsidize the cost of rent for their buildings with their state funding allocation, taking away money that could be used to sustain its educational mission, expand or create new schools, said Eric Doss, superintendent of the Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences.

There are about 20 charter schools in Oklahoma, nearly all in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, that serve more than 7,000 students, said Chris Brewster, president of the Oklahoma Charter Schools Association.

Brewster, also superintendent of the Santa Fe South charter school in Oklahoma City, said his school initially began as a single school operating in a vacant church building. The school now has four sites, including a high school housed in a surplus elementary school building that opened in 1908.

Other charter schools operate in office buildings, warehouses and even vacant shopping malls, Brewster said.

“It is not a laughing matter, although it is humorous sometimes to see where we’re doing our work,” Brewster said. “Charter schools do not have a level playing field financially.”

Among the ideas discussed include additional funding from the state, the inclusion of charter schools in local bond issues and dedicated funding from the state that could be used to match private donations.

“Certainly we have a clearer picture of the problem,” said state Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, chairman of a House budget subcommittee on education. “I don’t have a clear answer, but as long as we continue the dialogue, we’ll get closer to finding one.”

Denney introduced a bill last year that would have given charter schools the ability to issue bonds, but that proposal was met with resistance in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Some members expressed concern with any attempt by lawmakers to dedicate additional public funding for charter schools. Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, said he questioned the use of bonds or property taxes to fund charter school facilities.

“I do not think we need to find new, creative ways to tax people at the local level,” Reynolds said. “I sympathize with the facility funding problems the schools presented today, but I think the focus needs to be how to help these charter schools use existing unused public school facilities, rather than looking for new forms of funding.”

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