This week, the San Diego Unified school board approved $20 million in bond money so Innovations Academy, a charter school in Scripps Ranch, can build a new school.
You could say that San Diego Unified just threw Innovations Academy a $20 million bone. But in doing so, the district is eliminating a potential home for charter schools, and is spending down the share of money charter schools have to construct new ones.
In 2008 and 2012, taxpayers approved a pair of construction bonds that gave the school district $4.9 billion to build new schools, renovate old ones and add technology to classrooms.
Prop. Z, the bond measure passed in 2012, allocated $350 million to charter schools, so they had their own money to draw from for new school construction. The $20 million for the new Innovations Academy will come from that slice of the pie.
Many parents and residents and Scripps Ranch opposed the school board’s decision – not so much because they balked at the price tag, but because it means the district is one step closer to building an apartment complex on the land where Innovations Academy currently sits.
In February, the school board voted to move forward on a deal to lease the district-owned property to a private developer who plans to build 264 housing units. In addition to the apartment complex, the plan includes a science and technology lab for student use. And by leasing the property instead of selling it, the district says it stands to make $400,000 a year for the next 66 years.
The district has four other properties on which it wants to make similar deals.
The decision to lease the property is an entrepreneurial move that makes good on the school board’s commitment to generate revenue off property instead of selling it outright. For years, former San Diego Unified trustee Scott Barnett castigated the school board majority for selling off properties for one-time revenue, likening it to selling grandma’s jewelry to pay the rent.
But to Scripps Ranch residents opposed to the apartment complex, the decision is illogical: Why push out a charter school – which has been renting a district-owned facility that would have otherwise sat mostly vacant – just to spend $20 million building a new one?
“This seems like a shell game. The district is taking money from one pot and putting it into another one. And the only one going to win in this game are the developers. Taxpayers are going to lose,” one parent told NBC 7.
District officials believe the bottom line will eventually prove them right. And because the $20 million won’t come out of the district’s general budget, it will only be spending down the $350 million charter schools were originally allocated.
If charter schools want a share of the $350 million, they need to have existed for five years, be in good standing and submit an application for construction. But resources are quickly dwindling.
Miles Durfee, regional director for the California Charter Schools Association, says virtually all of charter schools’ $350 million share of bond money is spent, or already called for.
That means charter schools that want to open in the future will have to either rent from a private owner, or apply to use vacant district-owned facilities, which they have a right to use under state law. That’s what Innovations Academy has been doing for the past five years at the site in Scripps Ranch.
Renting district-owned facilities is relatively affordable, but poses major obstacles. Namely, the school could get kicked out if the district decides it has a use for the facility. And often, charter schools end up sharing facilities with traditional district schools. It’s known as co-location – which can raise tensions typical of any roommate situation.
Christine Kuglen, Innovations’ founder, said she would have been happy to remain in Scripps Ranch, but is relieved her school, which has moved three times since 2008, will finally have a permanent home. Innovations has started searching for a new facility but doesn’t know in which part of town it will eventually land.
Moving locations can be especially problematic for charter schools. Many parents choose schools based on location, so whenever a charter school has to move, it can lose a portion of students whose parents chose the school because it was close to home or on the way to work. Yet, despite three moves and the next on the horizon, Innovations has been able to increase enrollment.
Kuglen said she agrees with neighborhood residents who oppose the apartment complex – “it wouldn’t be good for the neighborhood and residents don’t want it here,” she said.
Still, she thinks vocal opponents have conflated the fight to save Innovations Academy with the fight to preserve the character of the neighborhood.
“Scripps Ranch is a very tight-knit community. But that also means they have a very insider-versus-outsider perspective. And the truth is that as long as we’ve been here, we’ve always been viewed as the outsiders,” she said.
Besides, she said, she learned long ago that when district officials create a plan, it’s pointless to stand in their way.
“In my heart, I know the district is going to do what the district wants to do,” said Kuglen.