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In 2012, when voters approved a $2.8 billion construction bond, charter schools in San Diego Unified rejoiced – they’d finally have their own pot of money from which to draw if they wanted to build new schools.
But that money hasn’t gone as far as charter leaders hoped. Just four years after passing Prop. Z, the $350 million share allocated to charter schools is already spent or spoken for. Only about $6 million remaining Prop. Z dollars is still up for grabs.
Most recently, San Diego Unified school board members approved $20 million so Innovations Academy, a charter school in Scripps Ranch, could move from a facility it leased from the district and build a home of its own.
Other big-ticket projects include: $31 million for renovations at Gompers Prep Academy, a charter school in Chollas View, and $36 million for Health and Sciences High and Middle College to purchase property and build a new school.
When voters first passed Prop. Z, any charter school in the district could apply for bond funds. But in 2014, the school board raised the bar. The new rules mandate that only charter schools that have existed for five years and are in good standing can access bond money.
One charter leader called that rule a “slap in the face” because it meant some of the same charter school leaders who helped campaign for Prop. Z would be excluded from its benefits.
Meanwhile, the district has been spending bond money on projects across the district, adding interactive whiteboards to classrooms, air-conditioning units to schools and building stadiums and athletic fields.
San Diego Unified has a much bigger pot to draw from for those projects. Four years before voters passed Prop. Z, they passed Prop. S, which gave the district $2.1 billion to spend on construction and technology. Together, Prop. S and Prop. Z brought the district $4.9 billion.
In June, San Diego Unified reported that $1.15 billion of that money has been spent and another $230 million is tied up in projects-in-progress.
The district has more than $3 billion in bond funds it has yet to spend on neighborhood schools. Charter schools’ share, on the other hand, is about tapped out.
Yet the percentage of district students attending charter schools is climbing. In a school board meeting last year, district staff members estimated that 20 percent of district students attend charters. District officials expect that number to rise to 30 percent within 10 years.
But without funding, housing new charters is going to be a problem. New charter schools, which rarely can afford to purchase their own facilities in their first few years, sometimes end up sharing a campus with a traditional district school.
This isn’t ideal. Sharing a campus brings out tensions typical of any roommate situation. In fact, one of the main reasons charter schools were allocated Prop. Z funds in the first place was to help charter schools get their own facilities and avoid the split-campus arrangement.
But unless charter schools can find additional funding, you’ll likely see more schools sharing campuses in the future.
That’s one reason Miles Durfee, regional director for the California Charter Schools Association, wants the school board to increase charter schools’ share of bond money.
Wording on the Prop. Z ballot measure suggests it’s an option (emphasis mine):
The District shall set aside from the proceeds of bonds authorized hereunder $350 million for completion of the projects listed in this Part Three; however, the Board of Education may adjust such amount after the date hereof to reflect a change in the proportion of students residing in the District who attend charter schools. In approving the expenditures for projects listed in this Part Three, the Board of Education shall take into consideration the recommendations of a special committee established by the District for such purpose that is comprised of a majority of representatives of the charter school community.
In other words, charter schools were allocated $350 million based on the percentage of district students attending charter schools. And as that percentage increases, so too could their share of bond funds.
That decision, however, rests with the San Diego Unified school board. And while school board vice president Richard Barrera said he’s open to a conversation about increased bond money for charter schools, he wouldn’t immediately support it.
“As a board member, if charter schools are advocating that they should get more money, then my first question is: Who’s going to get less money?” Barrera said.
Charter schools may point to long waiting lists to show how much they need more money, Barrera said, but there are waiting lists at popular neighborhood schools, too.