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It’s the most basic of school needs: a clean, safe space where students can learn.
Yet two decades after Hawaii passed its first charter school law, many charter school leaders say finding, maintaining — and paying for — basic school facilities remains a frequent, pressing problem.
Because of limited learning space at Hawaii Technology Academy’s main learning center, students meet with teachers at local libraries, community centers — and even at a North Shore McDonald’s with free Wi-Fi.
Multiple charter schools have had to reduce the number of grades they offer or hold off on expansion plans. Others cobble together classrooms out of tents and tarps or other makeshift structures.
At Innovations Public Charter School on Hawaii Island, teachers are expected to seek out grant funding to help buy curriculum and supplies for their classrooms.
Lawmakers and advocates have debated the lack of facilities funding for charter schools for years. But many charter school leaders say even they didn’t understand the seriousness of the issue until they had to grapple with the issue themselves.
“I anticipated that facilities would be a challenge,” said Buffy Cushman-Patz, founder of the School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability, one of the state’s newest charter schools. “I did not realize that it would be such a crippling challenge.”
Yet even as the state readies to spend $100 million to address heat challenges in Department of Education-owned schools, legislative proposals and charter school funding requests mostly have fallen flat.
“The only hope I really have is that the legislators will realize we are not on equal playing fields here,” Cushman-Patz said.
More than 10,000 students in Hawaii attend charter schools — public schools that are funded by the state but operate with a greater degree of autonomy than campuses run by the state Department of Education.
Hawaii’s 34 charter schools are primarily funded on a per-pupil basis, using a calculation based on the state DOE’s annual appropriation. That per-pupil rate has risen from about $6,009 two years ago to $6,846 in the current school year. By comparison, the DOE said it spends $11,803 a year per pupil at its schools; but that includes administrative and other expenses, is more than the schools actually receive, and isn’t directly comparable to charter schools’ per-pupil figures for other reasons.
But advocates say the state is significantly short-changing charter school students because it doesn’t provide funding for facilities.
Schools operated by the state Department of Education don’t have to pay rent or utilities or pony up for most building repairs. Even routine maintenance, such as changing out fluorescent lights, would typically be covered by the state funds.
At charter schools, rent, utilities, repairs all have to come out of the school’s per-pupil allocation — money that could be spent on more teachers or extracurricular programs at a public school.
And inequities exist even among charter schools. Six charter schools in the state are what’s known as “conversion schools,” and are housed in DOE-owned facilities. Those schools pay for utilities, but they pay no rent and the DOE still ponies up for repairs. A few other schools are located on state-owned land, and can sometimes get state funding to pay for improvements or repairs.
The rest of the schools are left mostly on their own to find affordable rentals, or look for creative ways to raise the funds they need to buy and build their own spaces.
The costs for school facilities can add up quickly. In 2014-15, charter schools spent anywhere from several hundred to more than $2,000 per student on rent and utilities.
High facility costs played a big role in the financial collapse of Halau Lokahi, a charter school shut down by the state in 2015.
Rent for the school facilities reached $33,000 a month by the time it closed — far beyond what the school could have maintained. At one point in the 2014-15 school year, the charter was unable to make payroll.
The eight charter schools that responded to a Civil Beat questionnaire said that spending on rent and utilities ate up an average of 10 percent of school budgets.
“That’s three or four bodies I would have on campus,” Cushman-Patz said. “That is people that could make our class sizes smaller and our student-to-teacher ratio better.”
Finding adequate space is a challenge shared by some of the state’s oldest and newest charter schools.
When Ka ʻUmeke Kaʻeo converted from a public school Hawaiian language program into an independent charter school in 2001, it already occupied 18 rooms inside Keaukaha Elementary School on the Big Island.
Over the last two decades, though, the elementary school has needed to reclaim more and more of those classrooms for its own use, and by the end of the coming school year Ka ‘Umeke will be completely evicted from its original home.
Running a capital campaign to build school facilities requires a lot of capacity and expertise that few schools have, said Ka ‘Umeke Director Olani Lilly.
The school has been working for a decade to build that expertise, and also has received help from Kamehameha Schools. The school has obtained a lease from Kamehameha Schools and is now working on plans for building facilities on the land.
Another challenge is the exceptionally high cost of Hawaii real estate.
“My office is my shoulder bag.” — Leigh Fitzgerald, executive director, Hawaii Technology Academy
Hawaii Technology Academy, a blended learning program that combines online coursework with in-person classes, spent several years looking for a larger space for its main Oahu facility.
Ideally, the school would have eight permanent facilities, said Leigh Fitzgerald , the school’s executive director. The school currently has three permanent sites and is opening another on Maui in the coming school year.
The lack of space means increased travel for teachers, who often drive from one end of the island to another to meet with students in makeshift learning facilities. The school also has no private offices for administrators.
“My office is my shoulder bag,” Fitzgerald said.
Innovations Public Charter School spends about 20 percent of its $1.9 million operating budget on rent and facilities. Because of facility costs, the school cut its kindergarten program several years ago and also increased class sizes.
The School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability looked at 37 sites before finding space to lease in Kaimuki.
The school planned to serve middle school and high school students; but it has had to cap its program at middle school because of challenges finding an affordable larger space. Last year it bought two “soft-walled” structures to add extra classrooms. The school was unable to get a permit for the second structure this year, so it created a classroom using tarps and poles, Cushman-Patz said.
Parents and students rarely complain about attending classes outdoors or in makeshift structures, several charter school leaders said. In fact, the students are surprisingly upbeat and resilient, making the best of often-challenging conditions.
“It’s hardest on the teachers who want to have walls to put student work on and know that kids’ papers are going to stay on their desks when it’s windy,” Cushman-Patz said.
Charter school leaders and the state agency that oversees charter schools have long advocated for additional facility funding.
Over the last three years, lawmakers have introduced numerous bills to address facility funding for charter schools through a variety of means, but most have failed to move forward.
The one law that did pass last year hasn’t produced any real change for the schools. Act 234 created a charter school facilities working group at the Department of Education, and called on lawmakers to consider appropriations and bond authorizations for school facilities. The funds would have been distributed by the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission.
This year, during the legislative session, the Hawaii Public Charter School Network launched a “Get Facilities!” campaign calling on lawmakers to take the next step and allocate funds for the commission to give to schools.
More than 450 parents and teachers submitted testimony or wrote letters to lawmakers as part of the campaign, said Jeannine Souki, executive director of the network.
The Board of Education, too, told lawmakers that lack of funding for charter school facilities is a “major and ongoing challenge” in the state.
However, the legislature didn’t appropriate any funds for the upcoming fiscal year for the commission to allocate to schools, nor did it authorize issuing any bonds.
“It’s a disappointing not to see any level of facilities funding provided for this session,” Souki said.
In the meantime, charter school leaders say they will continue looking for creative ways to create classroom space, and hope that lawmakers will take up the issue next year.
“This is something really important for our state legislators and our governor to look at and consider how we are being equitable to all students in our state,” said Hawaii Technology Academy’s Fitzgerald.