Charter schools in Anchorage are struggling with a facilities problem. The schools are part of the Anchorage School District, but they have to find and pay for their own buildings. And it’s really hard to find empty schools or pay to build new ones. Now the Anchorage School Board is discussing a potential solution.
Rilke Schule principal Dean Ball pops his head into a kindergarten classroom on a recent morning.
“Guten morgen, Herr Ball!” the children chorus. That’s “good morning” in German.
Rilke Shule is Anchorage's German-emersion charter school. Like all public schools, charter schools are publicly funded and are free. But unlike neighborhood schools, students are chosen through a lottery system. And the district does not provide charter schools with buildings. That means Rilke Schule is spending more than $700,000 a year --or a third of their budget -- to rent rooms in a church.
Ball says it’s far from ideal. Classrooms on the three floors are small and awkwardly elongated. Teachers work from storage closets.
“Here’s our one set of bathrooms for our 383 kids,” he says, pointing to standard sized building bathrooms.
The school is running out of space, though they’ve tried to make modifications.
“We also built a wall between the art room and the storage area at the time and that became a classroom. Very small.”
They have six portable units outside the school. Their forth grade classes are held offsite at Abbott Loop Elementary. Ball says they’ve been looking for a new place to rent or a way to build for four years.
Rilke Schule is not the only charter school in Anchorage without a home. The School Board approved the creation of a new middle school a year ago called the STrEaM Academy, but it didn’t open this fall because the founders can’t find a building.
Middle school teacher Andranel Brown says she and her coworkers want to create the hands-on, place-based school because of comments made by her students in east Anchorage.
“A few times we have gone on hikes and a number of years kids would say ‘Ms. Brown I’ve never been on a hike before.’ I’m like, ‘What? We’re standing here on Bird Ridge. It’s just around the corner.’ Or kids would go on the planet bike ride [through downtown and Kincaid] and say ‘This is the farthest I’ve been from home.’ And I said, ‘This is not OK.'”
Brown says they’ve chased leads and spent months looking for a location. She says she’s spoken to many other Anchorage charter school principals, and she always hears the same message:
“Facility consumed my life. That is what took up the bulk of my time. If we had had a space that was adequate for us, we could have directed so much more energy into other things.”
Now the Anchorage School Board is considering offering help. Some board members want to set aside $5 million for a Charter School Facility Fund. It would give schools low-interest loans to help them build new facilities or modify others. Board member Natasha von Imhof says it’s a way to help the schools solve the facilities challenge without costing the district money.
“It’s a loan pay-down; it’s not necessarily a grant. And so as charter schools pay back the loan, whether it be through capital campaigns or a state grant or simply monthly payments, the money goes back into this charter school facility fund.”
Von Imhof says the fund could be used to attract federal and state dollars as well. Both levels of government are considering putting more money toward public charter schools.
Von Imhof says charter schools are important for the entire district because they are innovation incubators.
“Charter schools are given a little bit of freedom to try innovative academic practices that, if are successful, can be standardized and scaled up to apply to other neighborhood schools.”
Another proposal would set aside $2 million of the $5 million specifically to help Rilke Shule.
School Board member Kameron Perez-Verdia says he recognizes the charter schools’ needs, but he’s unsure about the fund.
“I do definitely have reservations about using operating funds to put into a fund like that because I think that we all know that we are in a very difficult financial situation as a district.”
Perez-Verdia says bonding is a better solution, but that would take time to put into place.
School Board member Pat Higgins says he’s concerned that public money would be given to a school that does not have to follow the competitive bidding process.
“So I’m not opposed to helping the schools get better facilities and get it at better rates, but I want total transparency on all the finances that are taking place.”
He’s also concerned that charter school facilities could be built at commercial building standards, which are lower and less expensive than institutional standards. Schools are built as institutions and can serve as community shelters.
Rilke Shule Treasurer Jason Shorter says the fund is a good short-term solution for the school and the district.
“It’s a great deal for charter schools because it’s significantly cheaper than commercial money for us, and it’s a good situation for the district because charter schools count toward all the good metrics the district has.”
Many charter school organizers are in favor of the solution because it can help them find facilities right now.
The School Board will discuss and vote on the issue during their December 15 School Board meeting.