Christine Kuglen scoops up a paper cup from the muddy yard where children at Innovations Academy play in the shadow of a thundering highway. Since Innovations moved to this campus — a beige office building in the middle of Fashion Valley — the CEO has become the janitor, too.

She is also going without a paycheck, along with the program coordinator. Kuglen and her colleagues started the school just a year ago and have struggled to keep up their labor of love, an eclectic school where there is no homework and children choose what to study. They cut classroom assistants, froze spending and salaries and even cut a phone line to save $5 a month.

“We just keep walking through the fire,” Kuglen said as she strolled through the halls, strewn with dirt and litter she hasn’t had a chance to clean yet. “We do it because we know this is an amazing school.”

Charter schools have touted their freedoms as an edge over traditional public schools. Independently run and publicly funded, they can set their budgets, choose their curricula and hire their staff. But as the state slashes budgets, charters also have headaches that other schools don’t.

One of those headaches is finding — and paying for — a home. Many charter schools rent their classrooms from private landlords, setting up shop in churches or office buildings. The prices can be steep and schools can find themselves with unusual bedfellows.

Innovations rented rooms in the Salvation Army Kroc Center, a community center on the edge of Lemon Grove, but the school felt uneasy having outsiders walking through. It didn’t feel like it was really their space. They moved this year, renting classrooms that once belonged to a technical college, but lost families and had to pay more, including more than $23,000 to make it safe and usable as a school.

To save money and find more suitable spaces, some charters are turning to school districts, who must offer them empty classrooms — with discounted rents — under a state law. Keiller Leadership Academy and others have long rented schools that belong to San Diego Unified. They pay a dollar per square foot per year — a reasonable rate. The school district even smoothed the way this year, allowing charters with longer histories to sign longer leases.

But charters that are turning to the school district for the first time have little chance of getting an empty campus of their own. Instead, charter schools have been offered the chance to bunk with another school — something that can rub the highly independent schools the wrong way. Charters are still negotiating with the school district, trying to get better offers.

Leaders of Nubia Leadership Academy, a charter school in southeastern San Diego, say the school could cut its rent almost in half if it took an offer from San Diego Unified, but it would have to share a campus with Bell Middle School. Principal Rosalind Jackson worries about sending kindergarteners onto a middle school campus and figuring out how to make bell times work for both schools. But Cynthia Williams, who oversees its budget, says it already has similar issues sharing space.

San Diego Unified has offered to give Innovations space at an elementary school in Logan. It could save money: The Fashion Valley site isn’t ideal and the rent is $18,000 a month. Innovations’ student director, Danielle Strachman, hasn’t done the math yet, but she knows it would mean savings. For example, a larger charter school pays less than $30,000 annually to rent from the school district.

But the five classrooms are scattered all over the Logan campus. That could pose problems, Strachman said, because Innovations doesn’t use rewards or punishments to discipline children, instead having them resolve conflicts with discussion. If children from Innovations clash with children at the other school between classes, Strachman worries, whose rules will apply?

Even if they are happily settled, charter schools have other worries as the budgets drop. California has put off payments to schools, forcing school districts to take out loans to cover their payroll. That is easier for big school systems than for smaller, independent schools, especially new ones like Innovations without long credit histories or as much money in the bank.

“Some of them are paying through the nose for loans,” said Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento. “One of my clients cashed in her retirement savings to help her school. The IRS just whacks you for that. But it’s a reflection of the desperation when a school has no cash flow.”

Charter schools also tend to have less help with finances. Though the independent schools are increasingly looking to outside groups to handle money for them, some charters still rely on one or two people to balance their books. The dizzying and evolving cuts happening in Sacramento can be confusing to track for seasoned teams of budget analysts, let alone a single financial officer.

There are some advantages for charters in the budget crunch. Because most aren’t unionized, it’s easier to cut or freeze employees’ salaries, something that must be bargained with teachers unions in school districts. Both Innovations and Nubia have done that. Some charters have built up healthy reserves because they socked away money over time, but they tend to be older, more established charters.

Museum School, a tiny charter that uses projects to help kids learn, patched together its budget with a lot of help from parents. It froze salaries and upped enrollment to bring in more money, but it also passed the hat at fundraisers, bringing in roughly $120,000 last year. It hasn’t cut any staff. Phil Beaumont, its director, said it was ultimately able to lift the salary freeze — but then teachers donated their salaries back. It helped keep pensions intact while reducing spending.

Another charter, Holly Drive Leadership Academy, has long had financial problems because of its low enrollment. Principal Alysia Smith said she has barely noticed the difference as the state has clamped down on budgets. But when the time came to cut, Smith said, at least they could choose for themselves.

At Innovations, that meant choosing to go without a paycheck for Kuglen and her coworker. “We all got to decide together,” she said. “We all sat down and cried — and figured it out.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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