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San Diego Unified is seeking to charge charter schools much more than usual to rent two buildings it’s offering up for the first time, going outside of a state law that normally assures low rents for charters.

The school district argues that since these two buildings aren’t up to snuff with ordinary schools, they don’t fall under the law — and it doesn’t need to offer them for a discounted rate.

The curious result is San Diego Unified is seeking to charge charters more for lesser buildings.

“Logically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But that’s how it works,” said Lisa Berlanga, regional manager for the California Charter Schools Association.

School districts have to offer charter schools any available facilities that are comparable to district schools at low rents. The rules are supposed to level the playing field for charter schools, which often struggle to find affordable, usable spaces, unlike traditional public schools that already have them.

San Diego Unified has already made tentative offers to charters for school sites under that law.

Outside of that process, the school district is asking charters to pay more than $25,000 per month for each of the two sites, pegging the rent to what charters pay in the private market. The rent isn’t for a specific school, just any charter that would be interested. One upset charter principal estimated they would pay only $5,000 a month if either of the two sites were offered under the state law.

In a letter to the school board, Christine Kuglen, director of Innovations Academy in Mission Valley, argued that the school district was illegally stiffing charters and stranding schoolchildren while employees used buildings that should be made available to kids. The two buildings are currently being used for administrative offices and staff meetings, not instruction.

You might remember that Innovations was struggling to find affordable space a year ago when we last visited. Kuglen was going without a paycheck:

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 … 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.

That quest for affordable space is why Kuglen and other charter leaders would like to see the buildings rented at the lower rates under state law. Innovations was offered space at Miller Elementary through the law, but it argues that the empty classrooms available at the school won’t fit all of its students.

One of the two buildings is a former elementary school north of Lake Miramar now being used as a conference center to save costs on renting other facilities; the other is a former Linda Vista elementary school now used as administrative offices for food services, student records and other departments.

“It hasn’t had the upgrades to make it comparable to other schools,” said Roy MacPhail, who oversees instructional facilities planning for the school district.

Berlanga argues that the Lake Miramar site should fall under the law, but believes the district can charge for the other site, for the same reasons that MacPhail brought up. If any of the charter schools bite, this won’t be the first time that San Diego Unified has rented facilities to a charter school outside of the state law. It is already doing so with a former San Carlos school.

But Berlanga said the costs will likely block charter schools from using either of the two sites. And if charters use a school district building, they can’t apply for special state grants for facilities. So charters would be stuck paying a high rate and shut out of special funds to help cover those costs.

School districts must make their final offers to charter schools by April. Charter schools must accept or reject those offers by May.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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