The organizers of several charter schools opening this fall in New Hampshire say they’ve learned the hard way that finding a location is easier said than done.
The Gate City Charter School for the Arts is held its enrollment lottery at the Nashua Public Library.
As each number’s read, parents in the audience learn their child’s fate.
There’s no shortage of interest – 227 students are vying for only 100 spots for this fall.
And that’s despite the fact the school hadn’t yet announced a location.
But that didn’t seem to matter parents like Jennifer Ramos who says she just wants what’s best for her daughter, Nadia.
“It’s not a big issue, as long as it’s here in Nashua. She’s in kindergarten. She wants to drop out of kindergarten already. She doesn’t like it. And I think that she would love this school.”
After months of searching, the school’s organizers were finally able to announce a tentative location at the lottery, held earlier this month.
Co-founder Karin Cevasco says finding a home was the school’s biggest challenge.
“There were a lot of building owners in Nashua who did not want to work with us as a school. In particular, an elementary school. Just because of the HVAC requirements and what would need to be done to renovate those buildings.”
Organizers eventually settled on a former medical office building owned by Dartmouth-Hitchcock.
But, there was a problem – the building needed roughly $800,000 in renovations to bring it up to state and city safety codes.
That was money the school didn’t have.
Organizers were fortunate enough find a developer willing to buy the building, cover the cost of the renovations, and then lease it to them.
Cevasco wasn’t willing to name the developer, but says without the investment, the school wouldn’t be opening this fall.
“Because if you don’t have a building, you don’t have a school. And so this is a huge relief and it feels good.”
Charter school advocates say this is the norm – finding a building is the biggest hurdle in getting one off the ground.
Matt Southerton is the director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools.
Unlike traditional public schools, he says charter schools don’t have access to local tax dollars or bond funding.
“So often times they get into this position where they’re forced to lease or rent a building, which unfortunately three or four or five years later after that lease is signed, the costs continue to build and build.”
He says over the past five years, the cost of commercial real estate has doubled in southern New Hampshire.
Thomas Farrelly is executive director of Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate firm that’s worked with several charter schools in finding a home.
He says while cost is a factor, the toughest part of the process comes down to educating landlords about how charter schools work.
“The problem is you look at 15 buildings, you got to get 15 people comfortable with the basic concept. There’s a lot of handholding through that process. That will gradually change over time as people get to understand the charter school opportunity, but right now, it’s a struggle.”
He worked with Gate City, as well as the Founders Academy, another charter school opening this fall.
Organizers of Founders Academy wanted to open in Londonderry, but after an exhaustive search, instead opted for a building in Manchester.
Still, advocates say a lack of capital for these upstarts is really the biggest challenges.
Charter schools do receive a per-pupil allocation from the state, but that money doesn’t come until their doors officially open.
And like most states, New Hampshire doesn’t provide any facility aid to charter schools just starting out.
That’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Earlier this month, the House killed a bill that would have set aside $600,000 in funding for new charter school facilities.
The schools do receive federal start-up grants, which typically range from five to six hundred thousand dollars, but that money comes with restrictions.
Charter school advocate Matt Southerton says there was a time when schools could use the money for construction to improve safety and meet building codes.
“The Department of Education has since said, “No, you can’t use the funds for construction of any kind, even ADA compliance, but we will let you use it for rent or lease prior to opening.’”
But like with many grants, the guidelines can be interpreted in different ways.
Wendie Leweck hammers a wall that’s coming down in the future home of the Granite State Arts Academy in Derry.
The school has $600,000 in federal start-up money and plans to open in the fall.
Leweck says she’s using part of that grant to cover the cost of renovations required for safety improvements.
And she says that includes tearing down some walls.
“And then, you know we’re going to get in here and paint the walls. We’ve got work to do. We’re definitely going to put in our elbow grease and do what we need to do to make this place beautiful.”
But the federal grant restrictions have proven limiting for the Mountain Village Charter School, says one of its founders, Thea Dodds.
“We can’t build or take down walls. We can’t put in bathrooms. We can’t do anything that would improve the value of the property. We can’t do anything that would be permanent; that we can’t take with us.”
She says trying to find a commercial space for her nature-based Montessori school in Plymouth has been challenging.
The school still doesn’t have a location, but Dodds says they’re expecting to sign a lease within the next week.
“We’ve scoured. We have looked at spaces in strip malls, for instance. And although we quickly rule them out, we do feel obligated to not blindly rule anything out.”
It’s that willingness to be flexible that Roberta Tenney with the state Department of Education says goes a long way toward finding a suitable home.
“The one in Lancaster is in an insurance building. It has a small space in that insurance building and it has for 10 years. So they take advantage of the space that’s available and try to make it a home and a school.”
Back in Nashua, Cevasco says their building will need a new sprinkler system, as well as a new heating and air condition system.
She admits they could have been better prepared by knowing more about safety and code requirements.
But she also says the state could offer more help.
“Having some kind of checklist or guidelines for groups starting charter schools to say, you know definitely look into the building codes and make sure that you’re going to be able to find a space that meets those needs.”
But Tenney says the Department of Education is careful not to overstep its role.
“We do not work with them at all in what they find because their school is their school and it should have their imprint. And the Department of Education has neither the time nor the resources to be involved in that.”
Either way, there are no signs of the charter school movement slowing down.
Statewide enrollment has more than doubled in the past five years, with nearly 2,000 students now attending a charter school.
When the next four open this fall, New Hampshire will have 22 charter schools.
And state officials say they there’s another half dozen in the early stages of development.