Innovations Academy, a successful charter school in Scripps Ranch, has moved three times since it opened in 2008. Now the San Diego Unified school board is looking to send Innovations packing again.

School board trustees last week voted to move forward on a deal to lease one of the district’s properties to a private developer that plans to build 264 housing units.

The project has sparked intense pushback from parents and residents who don’t want an apartment complex in the area. But mostly lost in the uproar has been the fate of Innovations, which has been on the Scripps Ranch site since 2011.

San Diego Unified officials say the deal would bring the district $38 million over the lifetime of the lease.

But, at its most basic level, the district is telling a charter school it has to leave so it can use a school property for a non-school purpose. And that’s what stings – not just for Innovations Academy, but for local charter schools that might be watching the situation unfold.

Finding a permanent facility is the single biggest challenge for charter schools, and one of the biggest obstacles to growth.

The district has four other properties on which it wants to make similar deals. One big goal of the proposed arrangements is to boost the district’s finances without selling off properties, something it’s been sharply criticized for doing in the past. Charter schools, however, stand to lose the chance to move into those spaces.

Under the terms of Prop. 39, which California voters passed in 2000, school districts are required to provide charters with space – even if an existing neighborhood school currently occupies part of that campus.

Sometimes that means charter schools wind up sharing a campus with a traditional district school.

The basic problem for charter schools comes down to lack of money. In a charter school’s early years, especially if it opens with a small group of students, the school doesn’t have enough money to buy a building of its own.

If the charter can grow, attracting more students and the state funds that come with them, it’s better positioned to buy its own facility. But early years are tough.

Uncertainty From Year to Year

If charter schools use district facilities, they pay a small percentage of their revenue to the district for rent and oversight. Most leases are year-to-year. So if the district decides it wants to sell a property or lease it to a private developer, charter schools using the space have to move.

Currently there are eight charter schools that have short-term lease agreements with the district.

Miles Durfee, regional manager for the California Charter Schools Association, says the district should be exploring longer-term leases with its charter schools so they can focus on education instead of worrying about where they’re going to live in the coming year.

CCSA recently made recommendations to the district for ways it could ease the burden on charter schools. Among them: Make a list of all available space in the district, or space that could open up in the coming years.

The district does not provide such a list, a complaint raised by a number of charter school leaders over the years.

As it stands, every year the district takes inventory of its schools, then chooses what space to offer charter schools. Charters don’t have to accept the space they’re offered, and can negotiate to get more, or different space.

But without a list, charter schools must have faith the district is doling out space in accordance with the law.

A Familiar Tension

Traveling just below the surface is an old, familiar tension between the district and the charter school community.

Charters and neighborhood schools compete for students and the dollars that come with them. And as the percentage of district students who opt into charter school continues to rise, the district has made a more concerted effort to hold onto kids. Last year, district officials decided to ramp up their marketing efforts. They even came up with a new slogan: “Rediscover” San Diego Unified schools.

In San Diego Unified, the charter-district tension plays out subtly. In public settings, school board members and charter school leaders politely thank one another for productive, collaborative efforts.

Yet, for better or worse, many of the decisions school board members make effectively limit charter school growth.

For trustee John Lee Evans, the present concerns for Innovations Academy are overblown: The charter school may have to move facilities, but it will not have to close.

“That really shouldn’t be brought into the argument,” Evans said at last week’s board meeting.

“I think we need to be very clear that this is a very charter school-friendly district,” he said, pointing to the fact that the district earmarked $350 million in bond funds for charter schools to use for purchasing new facilities.

But Evans’ own example highlights the tension between the district and charters: In 2014, the school board made it harder for charter schools to access bond money.

‘Moving Is Definitely a Disruption’

The deal in Scripps Ranch isn’t finalized, but it’s moving forward. Last week, the district approved the project’s term sheet, and agreed to extend negotiations. Innovations Academy’s lease has been extended to the end of the 2017-2018 school year.

For Christine Kuglen, the school’s co-founder and director, that’s a bit of good news. She and other leaders will have more time to plan for the move. But that doesn’t mean she’s happy about it.

“We’ve been nomads,” said Kuglen. “We’ve made it work. But moving is definitely a disruption.”

Each time they move, school leaders have less time to focus on academics as more their energy is devoted to logistics. And it’s possible they could lose students whose parents work in the area and chose the school based on its location.

Not to mention, the school has carved a niche for itself. Despite the fact it’s located in Scripps Ranch, home of some of the highest-scoring schools in the district, Innovations Academy’s enrollment has continued to climb.

That’s partly due to the fact parents of children with disabilities are drawn to the school’s approach. Kuglen said roughly 20 percent of the school’s 360 students have special needs.

Other parents might be attracted to the school’s de-emphasis on testing and homework.

“That’s the piece that usually gets the most cheers from parents,” Kuglen said of the school’s “no meaningless homework” policy.

Innovations Academy’s approach to special education is precisely what attracted Stephen Rosen to the school. Rosen is an engaged Scripps Ranch parent who once ran for school board.

He’s committed to schools and loves his neighborhood, but said his neighborhood school was failing his children. Rosen said he discovered 90 days into the school year that his neighborhood school wasn’t providing special needs services his youngest son needed, so he hired a private tutor to fill the gaps. But that meant his kids got to school late, which he said the school wouldn’t accommodate.

So he moved his children to Innovations Academy, where he said they flourished. They’re now in high school, but Rosen continues to serve on the school’s governance board.

Kuglen said the Rosens are a perfect example of a Scripps Ranch family who benefited from the school’s current location – and of who might miss out when the school has to move.

Just because you have good schools in the neighborhood, Kuglen said, doesn’t mean that everybody there should be forced to go to them.

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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