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Strapped for Space, Charters Look to RCSD

Charters are spending millions of tax dollars to rent, buy and renovate. Meanwhile, city schools are emptying.
For the first time Thursday night, the Rochester school board may allow charter schools to locate in one of its facilities. The board will vote on a sub-lease to True North at 175 Martin St.

“It's a simple business arrangement,” said board president Van White.

But there's nothing simple about the relationship between city schools and charter schools.  As charter schools add more students, they're having trouble finding space. Charter schools are spending millions of tax dollars to rent, buy and renovate space, at the same time they're causing city school classrooms to empty.

Charter schools are independently-run, publicly-funded schools. There will be more than 4,100 charter school students in Rochester in the fall, a 25 percent increase over this school year. Charters are occupying old Catholic schools, abandoned buildings and former churches. Some do not have the amenities of traditional public schools.  

Young Women's College Prep

Young Women's College Prep has had two homes in two years. It opened in 2012, sharing a building with Nazareth Hall elementary school. This school year, the high school moved into the old Sacred Heart Cathedral school.

“We are going to outgrow this facility,”  principal Jennifer Gkourlias said. “We all want to know, in four years, where will we be?”

The classrooms do not have SMARTboards. The science labs are in a former kindergarten classroom that doesn't have sinks or outlets at work stations. The library is skimpy on books, with some empty carousels. The books were all donated. 

YWCP also has no gymnasium. A large room in the basement serves as a gym, cafeteria and auditorium.

“We have a basketball team. We have no baskets,” Gkourlias said.

By state law, the RCSD gives charter schools $12,090 a year per pupil. That adds up to more than $41 million this year. The state does not give charter schools capital funding for facilities.

“Our school has to take the per pupil aid and pay rent dollars,” Gkourlias said. 

Eventually the school would like to borrow money for a new location, but it has to wait for the state to renew its charter. 

“Who wants to issue a bond for a school that may not exist in five years? It's a real challenge,” Gkourlias said. “I think it's a very unfair burden.”

University Prep

University Prep opened in the old Nazareth Hall ementary school on Raines Park. Several years later, it ran out of space. Uprep bought an old nursing home on Lake Avenue and converted it into a school. Seventh and eight graders remain at the old school, while the upper grades moved into the new digs this year.

Construction on the Lake Ave. building is not finished yet. A gymnasium and locker rooms will be built on the premises. One day, the school hopes to convert a front room into a library, something the school lacks right now.

The entire relocation project cost $4 million. Principal Joe Munno said he didn't have to borrow a dime. He used his per pupil allotment. He said he was able to do it by running a lean operation.

“I don't have the bureaucracy of a central office...I'm central office,” Munno said. He added he didn't deprive students and staff of anything to get the new school opened.

In the fall, the seventh and eight graders will move into the Lake Ave. school. Munno said another charter school is purchasing the Raines Park location.

PUC Achieve Charter School

Construction workers are hard at work at an old church on Mark Street. The sanctuary will be divided into classrooms for PUC Achieve Charter School.

Businessman Joe Klein recruited the Los Angeles-based charter organization. Klein founded a nonprofit, E3 Rochester, to support local charter schools. The $2.5 million church renovation is being paid for through private donations and per pupil aid.

Klein wants the RCSD to open up its schools to charters, saying charters are also public schools.

“The children are all the same. Why should we be spending money on renovating space when there are underutilized facilities around?” Klein said. “It makes no sense at all.” 

Why Not Share?

“Whatever we can do to co-locate or utilize public facilities would go a long way and helping children having a fighting successful chance at life,” said Mayor Lovely Warren, a vigorous proponent of charter schools.

In New York City, co-locating charter schools and traditional public schools has been extremely controversial. The state legislature recently passed a law requiring NYC schools to allow charters to co-locate without paying rent or pay for them to rent space elsewhere. The law only applies to charter schools in New York City.

The debate that's been happening in New York City will inevitably come to Rochester. 

“They can't get a free ride,” said William Cala, interim superintendent in Fairport and past interim superintendent in Rochester. 

Cala is deeply troubled by charter schools. He said they should pay rent if they ever locate in RCSD buildings, as the district pays to maintain the facilities. Cala also said charters destabilize distrct finances and create instability. The RCSD is expected to pay charter schools more than $50 million next school year.

“Every time a charter opens, it makes Rochester's job to try to succeed that much more impossible,” Cala said, who has major philosophical issues with the charter school movement. 

Rochester school board member Mary Adams is concerned about giving privately-run schools space in traditional public schools.

“They are run privately, so they are not public schools,” said Adams, who also has deep reservations about charter schools. She plans to vote in favor of the lease to True North. That charter school will not be sharing space with RCSD students, as 175 Martin Street is empty. Adams wouldn't say if she would support a co-location arrangement.

Cala and Adams criticize charter schools for attracting the best students, having lower levels of special needs and English Language Learners and being able to kick kids out. These familiar debates about charter schools will come up if the RCSD allows widescale use of its buildings.

Superintendent Bolgen Vargas is careful not to criticize charter schools. He said he is open to charters locating in district buildings.

“I'd rather see a building with children than a building without children,” Vargas said. “We are losing a significant number of students to charter schools.”

Some charter schools have no interest in sharing facilities with RCSD schools.

“It's impossible to have two schools, three schools and four schools in one building who can coexist and have different cultures,” said Munno. “It just conflicts.”

There is one thing everyone agrees upon: There is no comprehensive plan to address the facilities needs of charter schools, impacting taxpayers, students, neighbors and the entire educational system.

“We haven't found 100 percent political will to do so,” said Gkourlyas.

On Tuesday on News 8 at 11, we will look into the charter movement in Rochester. Supporters say it's families a crucial choice to escape failing city schools. Critics say the charter schools are crippling traditional public education and don't play on a level field.

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