SFUSD sees record requests for district space from charter schools 

click to enlarge Gateway has operated a charter high school in The City since 1998 and a middle school since 2011. The SFUSD is required to provide certain resources to charters, but space is becoming an issue. - GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.f. Examiner
  • Gateway has operated a charter high school in The City since 1998 and a middle school since 2011. The SFUSD is required to provide certain resources to charters, but space is becoming an issue.

San Francisco's real estate boom has enveloped housing and commercial properties for years. But now at least one set of schools may be reeling from the effects of the soaring real estate prices in The City: charter schools.

After years of stagnant growth in population and construction, the rising cost to buy and rent space in The City has seeped into the San Francisco Unified School District. In the years since the recession of the late 2000s, additional charter schools have been surfacing in The City and seeking space. The number of charters has steadily increased to 15 this school year from nine in the 2008-09 school year.

A charter school is still a public school, but they are held to different standards. They are formed by teachers, parents or community groups to carry out a specific educational mission (i.e., the charter of the school). They are also accountable for the performance of their students.

And that swell has culminated in more requests to open space on district property for the next school year than the district has ever seen. Seven district-authorized schools, as well as two authorized by the state and one school pending state authorization, hope to open or continue operating on district property in the 2015-16 school year.

That is partly because renting private space is becoming more and more expensive, according to various charter experts. Of the two new charters applying to open next school year in San Francisco, at least one is seeking district space, and nine charter schools that are already open are also asking to either renew or relocate their sites.

"The reason is really around cost," said Hilary Harmssen, the Bay Area's managing regional director for the California Charter Schools Association, of why more charter schools are requesting space with the district next school year.

Charter-school officials also note that using district property is beneficial to students.

"If you can find a facility that is a great space for kids and is a less expensive option, that's what you want," said Sharon Olken, executive director for Gateway Public Schools, which operates middle and high school charters in The City.


Rachel Norton, a Board of Education commissioner, noted, "It's very challenging in this real estate market to find private rental space for elementary schools."

But the Board of Education has been hesitant to shell out space for charter schools, particularly as the numbers of elementary, middle and high school students are expected to grow in the next several years and many of the district's more than 100 schools are at capacity.

"This is going to be a big conflict for [the district] over the spring," Norton said. "Our buildings are full."

The district's dilemma for making room for charter requests can be attributed to the state's Education Code, which requires districts to offer the same resources provided to a public school if a charter school meets certain criteria. Such resources include a library and computer equipment.

"Essentially, a school is the only [place] that has those things," Commissioner Jill Wynns said of why charter schools typically share sites with publically managed schools.

Indeed, Gateway's high school and middle school have each operated on district property since opening in 1998 and 2011, respectively. Olken, the schools' executive director, said she has always had a positive experience working with the SFUSD to find space for the schools, both of which have moved three times since they opened.

"Being in a building that was intended to be a school in the first place is really helpful," Olken said, adding that she understands the importance of maintaining space for noncharter students.

"It's a really fine balancing act trying to find spaces that work for everybody and don't take away from spaces for other kids in the district," Olken said.

Proposition 39, approved by California voters in November 2000, requires districts to make school facilities available for charter schools with projections of at least 80 students in the district and considered a valid charter.

Since the 2011-12 school year, there have been 15 charter schools operating in San Francisco. Of those, 10 have requested use of district facilities per Prop. 39 in the coming school year, more than ever before, said SFUSD officials.

"The prospect of two new charters coming in and saying they need buildings is very problematic," Norton said.

Charter schools seeking district facilities are required to submit their requests by Nov. 1 of the preceding school year. The SFUSD has until Dec. 1 to object, and a preliminary offer of space must be submitted by Feb. 1, followed by a final offer by April 1.

But even if the SFUSD Board of Education denies a charter proposal -- which it has done more often than not -- the school may still make a request to the state Board of Education. Should the state authorize the charter, the SFUSD is required to provide space for the charter if certain qualifications are met.

"We have seen charter proposals coming recently and we [had] not seen many for several years. I believe that the lesson there is that we have enough [publicly funded] schools in San Francisco," Wynns said.


The debate over charters has existed seemingly as long as many schools have. Wynns has long spoken out against charter schools in California. She was first elected to the SFUSD board in 1992, the same year that the law enabling charters was passed in the state.

"In the whole time the charter law has been in effect in California, tell me what innovations have been developed in charter schools that were not first and continue to be developed and supported in the publicly managed system," Wynns said. "It seems to me they're learning from us, we're not learning from them."

Wynns also asserted that charter schools have strayed from their original intent to improve the qualities of schools in favor of making money.

"One of the biggest things we haven't talked about is how the charter movement ... presumed to be a way to address schools that struggled. Most of the schools would be conversions. Parents, community, teachers would take it over," Wynns said.

"In fact," she claimed, "charter schools have turned out to be a business strategy for people to make money."

But Harmssen of the California Charter Schools Association contended that charters were created to increase opportunities for students and teachers.

"In San Francisco, we see the charter schools are serving primarily minority families and I think in San Francisco there's a huge need for at-risk students," Harmssen said. "Running a school is not a money-making opportunity."

Still, the Board of Education plans to discuss its stance regarding charter schools at its first meeting of the year, though it is unclear what power, if any, the SFUSD board can take in an effort to reverse the effects of Prop. 39, Wynns said.

"We know it's a problem, we perceive this as a problem and we're seeking possible solutions to try to address this problem which is not entirely within our own control," Wynns said of the requirements for a district to offer space to certain charters.

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for Patch.com, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
Pin It

© 2019 The San Francisco Examiner

Website powered by Foundation