Charters await legislative help
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Loren Moreno
The first home for the students of Ka Waihona Public Charter School was a 4,000-square-foot renovated chicken coop in Makaha.
The rent was cheap, but students were sometimes distracted by chickens fluttering at their feet, and the ceiling leaked when it rained.
In its four years of existence, the school has had three different homes, finally settling into traditional facilities at the old Nanaikapono Elementary School site. But Ka Waihona's story illustrates what nearly two dozen public charter schools deal with when it comes to facilities.
"It is probably the most debilitating challenge that charter schools must face," said Alvin Parker, Ka Waihona principal.
Unlike traditional public schools, charters are on their own when it comes to finding — and paying for — a home. Not only do charter schools receive less money than regular public schools, but a significant portion of what they do receive must go to facilities instead of inside the classroom.
But three bills at the state Legislature would give charters extra money specifically for facilities.
Susan Deuber, principal at Voyager Public Charter School, said there is a "great inequity" when it comes to how much money charter schools receive in comparison to regular public schools.
"If you look at the size of our budget and how much goes into facilities, at a regular school that money would go directly into programs," said Deuber.
Voyager is housed in a renovated Kaka'ako warehouse where paintings and children's artwork soften the reality of attending classes in the middle of an industrial area. With no walls and only short partitions to divide classes, the noise can often travel and distract other classes.
But Voyager has one of the better facility situations of the 23 startup charter schools.
Four charter schools converted from public schools and retained their traditional public school campus. The startup charters have rented warehouses, pitched tents or even converted old Matson containers into classrooms and spent a lot of money to make the spaces safe for children.
Voyager took out a $450,000 loan to convert its warehouse space into a school and now spends nearly $30,000 a month on rent and loan repayment, said Deuber.
Schools receive their money from the state via a per-pupil allotment. Last year charters received $5,600 per student, said Jim Shon, executive director of the Department of Education's Charter School Administrative Office. Estimates of the amount of money DOE schools receive in comparison to charter schools vary depending on the source, said Shon. But "from the charter perspective, we are getting significantly less," he said.
"We should be getting twice as much on a per-pupil basis," he said.
Each charter school can use its per-pupil funding any way it chooses, but most must use a significant chunk on facilities.
"It's been a real struggle," said Shon. "I think that the earlier expectations of per-pupil funding was that it would have provided more funds for these kinds of things but they had fallen short."
One bill in the state Senate would create a second per-pupil allotment specifically to be used for rent, leases or other facility costs, said state Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-15th (Waimalu, Moanalua, Salt Lake).
Another bill, with versions in both the state House and Senate, would provide tax credits to landlords who rent to charter schools and also give charters access to state land, said Sakamoto.
"The per-pupil (funding) covers everything a school needs — electricity, water, all the expenses a regular school has — except it doesn't cover capital improvement or building a new school," said Sakamoto. He said the two bills would help by giving charters money for facilities that they normally miss out on by being autonomous from the DOE.
None of the bills would build schools, said Shon, but "all of them would offset some of the costs (charter) schools face."
Many charter schools have struggled with financial issues or have had to overcome management challenges to stay open, and their locations have led to problems for some schools.
When Waters of Life School on the Big Island opened in 2000, classes were held in two houses in rural Puna. Authorities investigated reports of overcrowding, inadequate bathroom and kitchen facilities and fire code violations.
In 2001, Waters of Life held classes at the Naniloa Resort Hotel in Hilo, leading to allegations that the school was violating health and safety codes and zoning requirements.
In all, Waters of Life has moved from five different locations in the past six years, said principal Katheryn Crayton-Shay. The school is currently housed in three different locations — a community center, a Girl Scout hall and two greenhouses.
The greenhouses, home to Waters of Life's middle-school students, have limited bathroom and water facilities, so portable restrooms and water need to be brought in. Their classes are also separated by hanging cloth, said Crayton-Shay.
"A lot of times just the wind blowing in the air can be a disruption for them," not to mention the property owner's dogs, which often run free, she said.
But Crayton-Shay said the facility challenges are worth the autonomy and freedom that the school has.
"Even though it is a very difficult struggle, if in some way we continue to impact the children's lives, it's worth the battle," she said.
"We would love to be able to rent state-owned land or property not being used."
Crayton-Shay, who took over as principal in late 2004, has said that the school has undergone sweeping management changes.
Shon, of the Charter School Administrative Office, said that problems Waters of Life had with the DOE and the Board of Education have been cleared up, though the staff is still dealing with some financial issues.
Innovations Public Charter School began by sharing facilities with another public school on the Big Island before moving in January into a renovated house in the Kona community of Kailua, said Barbara Woerner, school director.
Construction of two other school buildings is under way, but for now, some teachers are holding classes in tents.
This is the first time Woerner's school will be paying rent, and she estimated that facility costs will "take a significant portion" of the school's budget.
"It could impact us in terms of what we can actually afford in the way of staff that we hire," said Woerner, adding that currently there are two to three teachers in a class.
Parents are often heavily involved in charter schools through fundraising and other support. Bobbi Smith, whose daughter and son are in the fourth and fifth grade at Innovations, said that when the school was moving, she was painting, pulling weeds, even installing windows at the new site.
"I've spent many an hour volunteering up there just so the teachers can have the best opportunity possible for these kids," said Smith.
Smith said she hasn't thought twice about sending her children to the school. "I've never met teachers more dedicated," she said.
Randall Yee, chairman of the state Board of Education, said the board supports the charter school facility bills in full.
"We do recognize that (the current funding) certainly puts those schools at a disadvantage," he said.
Reach Loren Moreno at email@example.com.