Rhode Island · School Talk

Walton Foundation’s New Lending Funds Bring Much Needed Relief to the RI Charter Sector

Most people in Rhode Island don’t even have a full understanding of what a charter school actually is so it’s highly unlikely that they are aware of the disadvantages these public schools of choice face when it comes to acquiring needed space and facilities. While traditional school districts do not pay for their facilities out of their operating budget, charter schools do. And that is a problem. But there is good news thanks to the The Walton Family Foundation who has just announced the creation of two new funds designed specifically to help mitigate the facilities problem that charter schools face not only here in Rhode Island but all over the nation.

The Walton Family Foundation today announced the creation of the Charter Impact Fund and Facilities Investment Fund. The two distinct non-profit funds are supported through the foundation’s Building Equity Initiative, an unprecedented effort to make it easier and more affordable for public charter schools to find, secure and renovate facilities. The Charter Impact Fund and Facilities Investment Fund will provide quicker access to long- and short-term financing, respectively.

This announcement from Walton will be music to the ears of charter leaders who often cite facilities as their biggest challenge and greatest frustration.The median amount that Rhode Island charters spend on facilities out of their per pupil operating funds is $729 but that amount can get as high as $1,087 for schools that rent their space from a private entity. We have seen schools here in the Ocean State receive approval to open or expand only to discover that they can’t find a single space that meets their needs. But more disheartening is that when they do find a property that meets their needs, they run into political roadblocks that quite literally put more value on vacant and deteriorating buildings than on educating Rhode Island’s children. Add to that the lack of traditional amenities like gymnasiums, and smaller size of their spaces, and it’s pretty remarkable how well they continue to serve families and how much demand there is for more schools like them. 

Let’s consider, for example, this letter to the editor written by Julie Nora, the Director of the International Charter School.

To the Editor:

This Thursday marks the final deadline that the International Charter School gave to the Warwick City Council for a decision on our proposal to purchase and occupy the currently vacant Aldrich School on Post Road in order for us to secure financing this year. The Council let the deadline pass without allowing us a public hearing and voting on our proposal. We are deeply disappointed with this outcome.

ICS provided the sole response to the city’s Request For Proposals (RFP) for the Aldrich School site in July of 2017, and we have worked at length with the City Council for the past several months to revise our original submission so our proposal truly advances the needs of Warwick’s citizens as well as those of ICS. It has been our goal to strike a balance that would benefit the city financially, educationally, and culturally, and result in a new, larger facility for ICS.

Initially, we offered a fair purchase price and an ongoing, voluntary payment in lieu of taxes (something not required for a non-profit). Then, in response to requests from the City Council members, we increased our purchase price to $2.5 million – more than the property’s assessed value – and we agreed to reimburse 60 percent of the tuition to the city. We also offered to limit the number of Warwick students who could enroll at ICS to 20 (out of an eventual total of 800 students), and we agreed to share any capital gains that resulted from any sale of the property.

During a September 14 community meeting held at the Norwood Boys and Girls Club, Warwick residents were excited about having ICS as an option for their children and about our plans to bring life back to an iconic building that had sat vacant for more than a year for its intended purpose, a school. The Warwick City planning office, which issued the RFP, found our proposal to be exceptionally strong. Unfortunately, the residents of Ward 2, the rest of the Warwick community, and the ICS community are being denied the opportunity to even weigh in on what ICS’s proposal represents to the city.

ICS is a statewide independent charter school of national repute with a successful 17-year history. We need a building to expand to middle school, and we believed we had found a match when Warwick put out an RFP for an abandoned building. We were not proposing a brand new school in Warwick that would subtract students from Warwick public schools but looking for a location to provide an opportunity for those families who are already enrolled, and for any new families from across the state that choose our unique school for their child.

Recently the Warwick School Committee passed a resolution that opposes “the establishment of publicly funded, privately owned and governed Charter Schools or Mayoral Academies in the City of Warwick.” ICS, and other charter schools in RI, are not privately owned nor are they privately governed. They are as public as any other public school in Rhode Island. This resolution effectively shuts the door not only on economic opportunity for the city, but also on the introduction of any new educational opportunities or innovations for Warwick students in their city. The only option that the Warwick School Committee will support is a traditional public school – in other words, itself.

More school buildings in Warwick are pending closure. It is my sincere hope that whatever opposing forces prevented ICS’s proposal from being considered in a public meeting can be overcome so that Warwick can welcome opportunities that will result in increased economic activity for the city and educational opportunities for those who desire them.

Our proposal to reclaim that building is a tremendous lost opportunity for Warwick. The Aldrich School is a true gem, and we are deeply saddened at the prospect of it standing vacant and hope it does not become like the Rhodes school near it-a costly demolition project for the city.

And this idea of vacant and deteriorating buildings isn’t unique to ICS. Blackstone Valley Prep was all set to set up shop in the old Red Farms Studio greeting card company in Pawtucket  when in June of 2012, the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, the legislature, and the Governor blew up their plan. While the intention of the “school siting bill” —to protect children from environmental toxins—was admirable, its outcome was not only illogical but hugely problematic in the context of the facilities desert that already exists in the state. According to the updated law, children would now be able to live in buildings on the very sites that were no longer allowed to be used as school sites. Condominiums for families were fine but a school was out of the question.

Needless to say, these two new non-profit grants programs from the Walton Family Foundation offer hope for funding inequities between traditional and alternative public school. One is the Charter Impact Fund, which will launch with $200 million in seed funding and provide long-term, fixed-rate loans—similar to a home mortgage—to high-performing charter schools anywhere in the country for up to 100 percent of project costs. The other is the $100 million Facilities Investment Fund, which will offer public charter schools five-year fixed-rate loans for up to 90 percent of project costs for new construction or facility renovation.

“Big challenges require bold solutions,” said Alice Walton, Walton Family Foundation Board Member. “This effort will allow resources that were spent on facilities to be directed back into the classrooms, back to the teachers and back to where it should be—with the students.”

“The charter school movement’s urgent challenge with facilities finance requires these kinds of innovative initiatives and public-private partnerships,” said Nina Rees, President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Lack of access to facilities finance is among the biggest barriers to opening or expanding more high-quality charter schools in most communities across the country.”

According to Walton, nationwide, more than $3.6 billion is spent annually on public charter school facilities—resources that could be directed to support teaching and learning. And thankfully, with these two new lending funds, more resources will finally be able to support classrooms directly and charter leaders will be able to spend more time focused on leading their schools and less time running in to brick walls over facilities. 

Thank you to the Walton Family Foundation for seeing the need and jumping into the fray to help out.


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