Friday, March 13, 2009

Charter Schools May Get Access to School District Bond Proceeds Under Measure Cleared by Senate Ed Committee

The state's 150 charter schools may find it easier to share school district bond proceeds if a bill cleared Thursday by a Senate committee becomes law.

Under current law, public charter schools have no voice in the process by which the state's school districts decide on the facilities priorities to be financed by the issuance of bonds.

SB 176 would change that by requiring school districts to include charter school representatives on facilities planning committees.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial and the lead sponsor of the bill, says this provision will give charters a "shot at a place in the cue."

"When bond issues are discussed, charter schools aren’t even on the radar screen," she said. "School districts probably have a monthly meeting of the facilities planning committee and charter schools can begin to become aware of the needs of the entire district with regard to buildings, the typical stuff that’s on the bond call."

The measure would also require districts to place charter schools within their boundaries on the priority list for new facility construction or repair or remodeling of existing facilities on the basis of the criteria set forth in state law for traditional public schools.

Stacy Rivera, a spokesperson for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said the provision requiring that priority be given to charter facilities meeting the criteria of last year's Building Excellent Schools Act might make it hard for some fast-growing, newer charter schoolsto gain access to bond proceeds.

"I think that is a concern, and I’ve heard from some charter school parents that feel that this is not the solution for them," Rivera said.

But Spence thinks the use of the BEST criteria for inclusion in bond offerings is necessary to assure that charters in the most need of improvements to guarantee safe and functional facilities have access to capital.

"Up until now there wasn’t standard criteria for accessing capital money," Spence said. "I know there are charter schools that are in storefronts, sometimes in warehouses, and I think the needs of these charter schools are the same as the districts. It at least gives them some base for explaining their needs.”

Rivera said that one potential continuing concern with SB 176 is that it does not include any incentive that would encourage school districts to include charter facilities in their list of capital projects financed by bond proceeds.

But Spence said she is hopeful that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the massive federal stimulus bill signed into law in Denver by President Barack Obama last month, will provide some money for charter school construction.

"I think we might see that down the road," Spence said. "We’re meeting with the governor on Wednesday to hear what he has in mind for some of that stimulus money."

The Senate Education Committee held the bill over after a Feb. 26 hearing in order to seek greater consensus on its provisions.

Advocates for traditional public schools were uncomfortable with the original version of the bill, which essentially required the districts to include charters in their bond offerings.

Spence decided to change the mandatory nature of the bill into the process-oriented measure that was approved Thursday.

Rivera said that charter school advocates had engaged in lengthy discussions with representatives of school districts and school executives before the first hearing on the measure.

“I got the impression that day that, literally, the different organizations that have been at the table on this bill were making changes up to the eleventh hour,” Rivera said.

Despite those discussions, representatives of the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives opposed the bill at the February hearing.

The bill now heads for the Senate floor.