Markell Johnson’s public school is a warehouse.
Correction: Was a warehouse.
The 9-year-old is ripping dance moves as he sings a civil rights anthem in the Academy for Integrated Arts charter school, surrounded by a boisterous veneer of student artwork covering the industrial walls.
“Selma’s now for every man, woman and child…”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
The injustice, many charter-school-backing lawmakers would say, is that Markell and his 90 schoolmates crowd into makeshift spaces in two small buildings on Troost Avenue while unused public school buildings not far away stand empty.
Charter school operators certainly appreciate discussions underway in Jefferson City aimed at compelling the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts to deliver more buildings to homeless or expanding charter schools.
But solving charters’ facility problems is not as simple as handing over old schools, said Greg Rieke, the special projects coordinator for the Frontier School of Innovation charter schools, which enroll more than 1,200 Kansas City students.
Charters, though they get state funding to educate children, get no public funding to buy or lease property.
Even when they do get a crack at a vacated school, renovation costs can be as high as $1 million. And the purposeful weight on charters that requires them to succeed or shut down makes lenders understandably leery to pony up cash.
“It’s a rare bank that will even talk to a charter school,” Rieke said.
Frontier, as it was outgrowing leased spaces, toured many of the school district’s empty sites, Rieke said. But when the school finally got the financial backing it needed to buy property, it chose newer office spaces off Front Street.
The Academy for Integrated Arts is in talks with the district for the empty Franklin School.
The students at work and play in classroom spaces separated only by bookshelves and coat cubbies hardly look compromised by their unusual accommodations.
They cavort in the mission of the school, which derives math and reading lessons out of the projects and art children generate in their unique play and interests.
It’s the adults, such as Academy of Integrated Arts board member Linda Edwards, who fret over the facilities strains.
“We’ve been looking for a building since day one,” said Edwards, the former dean of the School of Education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“We need a playground,” she said. “We need a quiet room. … We’re going to need more space.”
It was just a coincidence, as she spoke, that children in a music class in the school’s multipurpose play area were singing the song of the orphans in “Annie.”
“It’s a hard knock life, for us…!”
The pressure in Jefferson City to expand charter school access is stronger this spring, Sen. Jason Holsman said.
Lawmakers once again are trying to fix a flawed student transfer law that requires unaccredited districts to pay the transportation and tuition costs of children whose families want them to attend neighboring districts.
Because Kansas City Public Schools is no longer unaccredited, transfers are not affecting area districts, but school-choice-minded lawmakers have been trying to leverage more choice options in return for placing some limits on the transfers out of the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts.
In recent years, lawmakers tried to include private school options that ended up killing the bills. This year, the private option is off the table, but choice advocates are pushing harder for increased access to online school resources and to encourage more charters.
Some lawmakers think that charter schools, which are independent public schools, should be able to buy vacant public schools for nominal fees.
Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, drafted a compromise added onto Senate Bill 1 that would allow the districts until March 2016 to continue their current process for “repurposing” vacant buildings.
At that point, unsold buildings would begin to be auctioned at cut-rate opening prices, with charter schools and other public entities getting the first crack. The starting auction point would keep lowering for buildings left unsold. Then the district could tap into a state fund — if appropriated — to help with demolition costs.
That would give Kansas City’s repurposing process time to complete the working deals on the table, Holsman said.
“All I’ve done is set a clock and put a time frame in place.”
A House version, in House Bill 42, specifically allows charter schools to make a fair-price offer on any vacant school. The district could turn down the offer, but the charter would be able to appeal to the state commissioner of education.
Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green wonders: What’s the problem?
The district put 30 vacated buildings into a repurposing process in 2012. District teams worked with neighborhood groups and planners to develop best re-use ideas for the schools.
Of the nine the district has sold so far, three were sold to charter schools.
It worries him, he said, that the legislature would consider carving away at local control and the legal authority of an elected school board.
“The district has a purposeful process,” he said, “that sees to it that the community has a voice and input so that a school is used in a way that has value to the community in which it sits.”
State Rep. David Wood, a Versailles Republican who is the sponsor of the House transfer bill, concedes that lawmakers are more concerned about St. Louis, “which is not that organized” compared with Kansas City in its buildings process.
But charter schools have significant barriers in trying to secure buildings, he said. They can’t issue construction bonds. They struggle for financing without state help. Most have to lease buildings unless they gain significant private donor and foundation support.
The school choice advocates are looking to charter schools to generate high-quality classroom seats, he said, “and want to make as many options available as we can.”
Charter schools are looking for common ground, said Doug Thaman, the executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
Kansas City and St. Louis should have the opportunity to sell desirable buildings for profit that would bring in revenue to help improve classrooms, he said.
“But public schools were bought with public dollars for the education of children,” he said. “If a vacant building is not being used … and a charter school is ready to use it … let’s not take more public dollars for children and use it (the money) to re-buy a building for a use it was intended for.”
The two transfer law bills will have to merge in a joint conference committee and then head back to the floors of both houses — a tough road for any legislation, let alone for volatile education issues that have died three years running.
But this year’s attempt at a transfer law is moving at a faster clip, said Republican Sen. David Pearce, Education Committee chairman and the sponsor of Senate Bill 1, “and that’s a good sign.”
No matter what happens, there are no easy solutions for the Academy for Integrated Arts. Meanwhile, the teachers and children will make the best of it and what their imagination allows.
“I see a bunch of fish,” 6-year-old kindergartner Ge’Omoni Manning said as she and 5-year-old Amyah Garrett lay on their backs in their school dresses, basking in an imaginary swimming pool.
“I see a bunch of sharks,” Amyah said. Immediately they were leaping and squealing, darting on to the next game.
To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Buildings for sale
Pending legislation in Jefferson City aims to make it easier for public charter schools to acquire vacant school buildings in the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts. Both districts have buildings in store, but renovation costs and financing barriers would still make it hard for many charters to buy.
Kansas City Public Schools
Vacant school buildings not sold or leased: 20
Buildings for sale: 13
Number sold or leased to charters since 2012: 3
St. Louis Public Schools
Vacant school buildings not sold or leased: 35
Buildings for sale: 22
Number sold or leased to charters or operated in partnership since 2012: 2
Source: the districts