Charter Schools Face Many Money Issues When Opening Doors

One proposal envisions a healthy lifestyle high school where every student would play a sport and eat a nutritious meal each day.

A second foresees a middle school designed to nurture Baltimore's many foster children. A third would be an academy for boys, most of them African American, run in partnership with Morgan State University.

These are among more than a dozen proposals, full of hope and promise, for charter schools to serve Baltimore students, but in the tiny first floor boardroom in the Baltimore City School Board's North Avenue administration building this week night, all came face to face with the cold realities of numbers and money that come with trying to get a charter school off the ground.

The average Maryland charter school opens its doors saddled with a debt of up to $5,000 per student, said Paul Faber, Maryland regional representative for Imagine Schools Inc. Imagine, a nationwide non-profit charter school company, is also trying to open a school in the city in 2007.

"With 300 students," Faber said, "You could be looking at a debt of $300,000 to $400,000 a year."

A large part of this debt comes from finding a building for a school to use.

Very few new public charter schools are "conversion" schools — or current public school buildings turned into charter schools. Most of the proposed Baltimore schools are "startups," which are required to find their own buildings for classes.

And even though the state is required to provide the same funding per student to charter schools that they do to regular public schools, the state does not give any money to charter schools for facilities.

As a result, finding and preparing a school building can be a crippling expense, said Greg Richmond, president of the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Most companies, Richmond said, rent a building — often one that had been used as a school already — which can come with a rent of $150,000 to $500,000 or more per year.

Start-ups can get up to $400,000 in federal charter school grants over the course of three years, but that may not even cover a year's rent, much less the maintenance a building needs.

"Just about every school building in existence needs work," Richmond said. "Painting and new floors ... can escalate into a leaking roof."

In addition, many charter schools need resources to fulfill their charters: Musical instruments and art supplies if the learning is geared toward the arts; lab supplies and computers if the school's focus is science and technology.

Joni Berman, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, an aid and advocacy organization for charter schools in the state, said board members of a charter school have to make really hard choices on how they spend money.

"By begging and borrowing ... you get those supplies in," she said.

Khadijah Bilal, a teacher at Baltimore Talent Development High School, hopes to start a technology-based charter school with her husband next fall.

"We're going to get money. I'm sure that Johns Hopkins is going to have a vested interest," said Bilal, who currently lobbies for supplies and teacher salary from the Johns Hopkins University for Talent Development, a non-charter public high school. "They like me."

Bilal and husband Melvin Bilal, a former candidate for Baltimore City Council, are in the process of raising funds for a building to house their proposed Baltimore Academy of Health and Biotechnology.

With a tight deadline for a fall opening, schools will have to scramble to get teachers into the school early enough to get familiar with the charter school's curriculum.

Kona Nepay, whose Baltimore International Academy, a proposed foreign language immersion school, is in the running for a charter, knows she has at least one teacher.

Fluent in French and Russian, Prince George's County teacher Elena Lakounia plans to leave her job at the non-charter Robert Goddard French Immersion School in Prince Georges if Nepay's proposal is accepted.

Not everyone who came before the school board Tuesday was as enthusiastic about charter schools as Nepay and the Bilals were.

Baltimore community activist Bill Goodin said charter schools drain resources that are badly needed in public schools.

"All of these people have good visions," Goodin said at the Tuesday public meeting. "Why can't we bring these into our public schools?"

Capital News Service contributes to this report.