By Linda Brown
Before the name of the school; before the mission of the school; before the grade span of the school; before the city in which the school is located, comes the anxiety and obsession of what building the said school will occupy. It’s almost guaranteed that one of the first three questions out of a Fellow’s mouth will be, “…..what will I do for a facility?”
Say, hey, where do I get a building?
“Does Building Excellent Schools supply a building? How do we find one? Do you help us? Can you help us? Should I apply for co-location? What have been the experiences of the co-location model?”
Charter schools struggle to obtain school sites that fit all of their needs. They look for sites that are in the right location, have enough classrooms, and provide access to important non-classroom space, like lunchrooms, auditoriums, and gyms. Once they have found a school site that meets their needs, they often struggle with facilities payments. Charter schools must pay their rent or mortgage costs directly out of their operating budgets, whereas traditional district schools do not incur these same costs in their general funds. Every dollar that a charter school spends on facilities is a dollar that isn’t going directly to their educational program.
Of all the challenges facing charter schools, perhaps none is more daunting than finding a suitable home. In many parts of the country, affordable space is hard to come by. Renovations can be costly and complex to manage. Planning, zoning, and building code regulations can be Byzantine and inflexible. Securing adequate financing can be difficult and confusing. Lacking previous development experience, operators can easily overlook issues critical to the success of the project. For starters, operators often grossly underestimate the time that must be dedicated to successfully bring a facilities project to fruition. Moreover, most charter schools rarely possess the staffing resources necessary to plan, monitor, and complete a construction project. Financing the facilities project can also be daunting. Predevelopment funds for critical activities such as feasibility and needs assessments or preliminary site and architectural design work are often non-existent or difficult to access. BES Fellows face the additional challenge of finding space that can be scaled to match our slow growth/high quality enrollment model.
Once these tasks are completed, the charter school is faced with the additional challenges of critically evaluating various funding options for construction and long-term financing. Charter schools have an acute need for access to flexible capital (i.e. affordable rates, longer terms, non-traditional repayment arrangements) to match revenue and cash flow streams.
Most new leaders or leaders-in-the-making think the initials HVAC are an alphabetical aberration. They soon come to understand that not only will they learn they mean Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, but also that they are in charge of all of this or at least in charge until they find someone to be in charge. We use that to set an example, but the truth is that most leaders are like deer in the headlights with these tasks.
BES is trying to figure out how to develop a scalable facility development model to support an increase in the number of Fellows we plan to train beginning in 2016. BES plans to develop a model that capitalizes on the resources of national, regional, and local charter facility developers. These strategic partners will develop and support scalable spaces for BES Fellows in targeted zip codes where local funding is provided to train them. When fully developed, the system will be less overwhelming, less time consuming and more efficient than what BES has had to work with to date.