New school buildings set to get second helping of tax money

August 1, 2012

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Becky Vevea/WBEZ
Governor Pat Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan attended the groundbreaking for a third new UNO school built with the help of a $98 million state grant.

Along Natchez Avenue on the city’s Northwest Side, a brand new charter school is going up.

It’s a three-story building with floor-to-ceiling glass walls rising out of the dirt on one end. The Galewood Metra stop is just steps away.

The United Neighborhood Organization is building this school with part of a $98 million state grant it got in 2009.

But if Chicago Public Schools approves its current budget proposal, Chicago taxpayers will pay another $400,000 year after year for this building.

That’s because CPS uses a one-size-fits-all policy to distribute money to public charter schools that operate in buildings the district doesn’t own. 

Juan Rangel, the CEO of UNO charter schools, doesn’t see a problem with getting money from both the city and the state to build schools.

“No, it’s not double payment, in fact it’s just not enough,” Rangel said. “Why shouldn’t I take that money? Because I still have expenses from within, I want to be able to pay our teachers better. We’re going on performance pay this year. I want to be able to bonus our teachers if they excel. Why not? That facilities money opens up that door for me to do that.”

Rangel says money from the state is really no different than if a private philanthropist helped him build a school.

“I’m leveraging here,” Rangel said. “This is a good thing. I’m taking CPS money, state money and I’m going to do more to build more schools in our neighborhood. That’s a good thing. And if I can get federal money, which I’m going to pursue, more power to us.”

The UNO school on Natchez isn’t the only one getting state money—and city funds.

Five charter school groups in the city are getting a second helping of public money to help pay their capital costs.  

In the last five years, apart from UNO’s $98 million grant, the state gave two $12 million construction grants to Erie Charter School and the Institute for Latino Progress, which built the Instituto Health Sciences Academy. The Noble Network of Charter Schools got more than $2 million from the state to renovate and build a gymnasium at its Rowe-Clark campus and Chicago International Charter Schools got two smaller grants—one to renovate classrooms at its Northtown campus and one to build a playground at the Irving Park campus.

For several years, CPS has given charter schools in non-CPS buildings extra money. The formula, officials say, was calculated to cover the cost of new construction, though many charters use it towards rent or utilities instead.

This year, annual CPS facilities payment to all charter schools could jump from $425 per student to $750 per student.

A lot of charters say the increase will help them make much-needed repairs.

But for the schools that already got state money to build or renovate, the CPS increase could be a windfall. 

Ginger Ostro is the district’s budget director.

She says there are no plans to pull back on payments for buildings that already got state money.

“We look at it as providing the baseline support, and we’re aware and know that charters seek additional fundraising support and grants and philanthropy to provide additional support for the students,” Ostro said.

Ralph Martire, the executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said “that’s a completely illogical and hypocritical position to take.”

That’s because the way CPS approaches the facilities reimbursement for charters doesn’t take into account each school’s situation.

“To just say, alright, no matter how old your school, no matter what condition you’re in, even if you’re in a brand new building, here’s your x dollars per kid grant. That seems to me to be a highly inefficient way to utilize public taxpayer dollars, especially for CPS which is looking at a $700 million hole next year,” Martire said.

A CPS spokeswoman says charters aren’t part of the district’s capital budget and still need support to pay their heating and electric bills.

But Martire says it doesn’t cost the same to maintain a brand new facility as it does to maintain a 30-year-old facility.

Even other charter school leaders said the one-size-fits-all formula isn’t always fair.

“There’s going to be some winners and some losers,” said Kirby Callum, the head of Chicago Talent Development Charter School.  “If they could take each school case-by-case and look at their individual set up and create a formula based on that, obviously that would be much more fair.”

What Callum suggests sounds a lot like how CPS already manages its own buildings.  

School officials say for those schools they use a “rigorous filtering process” to prioritize construction and maintenance projects each year.

In a capital budget briefing with reporters last December, Tim Cawley, CPS’s chief operating officer, said the district can’t just spread capital money around “like peanut butter,” it has to look at what each school needs and how quickly they need it.

This year, less than half of CPS’s school buildings are getting money for construction or maintenance.

As for the blanket increase in facilities money for charter schools, the Board of Education will vote on that at the end of August.

In the meantime, UNO just broke ground to build another new school at 51st and Homan in Chicago.