When the San Diego Unified school board voted to raise the bar on charter schools seeking Prop. Z funding, nobody talked about Old Town Academy.

Part of the pitch for the $2.8 billion construction bond was that it promised an equitable share — $350 million — to charter schools that wanted to build or modernize facilities.

But a year and a half after voters approved the bond measure, Old Town Academy and other young charters are being told they can’t have the money until they’re 5 years old — even though they were instrumental in helping pass the bond in the first place.

During the Prop. Z campaign, charter schools helped mobilize voters — they held parents’ nights at schools and emphasized the importance of a “yes” vote.

When Old Town Academy’s executive director, Tom Donahue, walks around his school, he sees engaged students. In Shana Pitcher’s classroom, first graders are reading in small groups. In the music room, kindergarteners are learning scales on a modified piano — lessons they’ll later apply to their math homework.

The approach seems to be working. Last year, the K-8 school’s Academic Performance Index, a composite score based on student assessments, was 901, making it a top-tier school in the district. Enrollment jumped in two years from 190 to 257 students, with another 234 on the waiting list.

But Donahue also notices the eyesores in his building, the hand-me-down lunch tables, the junky chairs sitting in some rooms.

“Not having any money is great in some ways, because it forces you to be innovative,” Donahue said. Students use soup cans and pizza boxes for science projects, for instance.

“But,” he said, “it would be nice to be able to buy new microscopes.”

For new charter schools, it’s already a chicken and egg problem: Charters don’t get funding until students enroll, but it’s harder to attract parents if there’s no facility. Luckily, Donahue said, he and school leaders from Old Town Academy were able to use the building before they paid rent, so school leaders could hold an open house and show parents they were legit.

“With a vision and a building, it’s easier to get parents to believe,” he said.

Old Town Academy can’t afford to buy a new place, and spends a large chunk of its income on rent. Prop Z. dollars could ease that strain.

“We were hoping Prop. Z money could help us buy this building,” Donahue said. “Now we’ll just have to delay the moment we’re able to invest in teachers and teaching resources.”

Donahue said he isn’t one to make waves, but in this case he feels the school board is wrong. And he’s not the only one who’s irritated.

Nicole Wahab, executive director of Coleman Tech Charter High School, calls the move a “bait and switch,” and said she doesn’t understand why the school board is reneging on the promise it made in 2012.

Wahab said that her school will survive if it has to wait two more years for Prop. Z dollars, but she doesn’t understand why two schools — e3 Civic High and Global Vision Academy — were exempted from the five-year requirement.

“There are exemptions for some new charters, but not others? Are you kidding me? That’s absolutely a slap in the face to those of us that helped you get the bond passed.”

Trustee John Lee Evans, told VOSD that the school board needs to protect students and taxpayers from charters that have a high likelihood to fail. Asking for a five-year track record of proven success is one way to encourage that, he said.

Evans said that e3 Civic High and Global Vision Academy were special cases. The board was already prepared to grant them funding the night the new rule was created, “it was only fair to grandfather those projects,” Evans said.

Trustee Scott Barnett, however, wasn’t buying it. He said the rationale Evans used to push for the policy was a ruse to keep from paying “everybody and their mother” looking for funding.

Barnett predicted that the board will eventually have to admit the new policy is unfair and have to walk it back.

Wahab sides with Barnett.

“They’re talking out of both sides of their mouths,” she said. “They say they’re doing this to limit Prop. Z funds to high-quality charters, but they haven’t even said what that means.”

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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