St. Paul East Side charter school expansions get preliminary bond approval despite impassioned opposition

27November 2020

No one has argued that Hope Community Academy has been a bad neighbor. In fact, just the opposite. The predominantly Southeast Asian charter school on St. Paul’s Payne Avenue has opened its doors for neighborhood meetings and shared its parking lot during community events.

“Hope has been an amazingly good neighbor,” said St. Paul City Council member Jane Prince, addressing her fellow council members at a meeting this month.

Nevertheless, the 20-year-old charter school’s plans to add a high school that could draw nearly 500 students within the next five years have drawn special scrutiny on multiple levels, not the least of which is concern about what that growth will mean for the traditional St. Paul Public Schools system.

Following a sometimes impassioned discussion, the city council recently voted 5-2 to give preliminary approval to “conduit” revenue bonds for two major construction projects involving ethnic charter schools on St. Paul’s East Side.

A LONG-SIMMERING DEBATE

In doing so, the council revived a long-simmering debate over the impact of charter schools on city coffers and the public school system.

Jack Byers, executive director of the Payne-Phalen Community Council, has called it premature to greenlight a charter school expansion while a planned city study on the financial impact of charter school expansion is months away from completion.

“It is concerning that the city … would consider making an investment on the East Side (whether through actual dollars or by extending its bonding authority) without making such a decision based on the knowledge and insights gained from such a study and community participation on that study,” said Byers, in a Nov. 16 letter to the council.

Hope Community Academy at 720 Payne Ave. and the Minnesota Math and Science Academy at 169 E. Jenks Ave. had both approached the city asking for the conduit revenue bonds, which are a type of construction borrowing that piggybacks on the city’s favorable interest rate.

School officials have noted that the revenue bonds are paid back by the schools themselves, and no money is withdrawn from city coffers. In fact, it’s just the opposite — the city benefits by earning more than $2 million per year from conduit bond management fees, nearly a fourth of it related specifically to charter schools.

Hope Academy, which has 585 students in pre-K through grade 8, is a predominantly Hmong and Karen charter school that plans to begin a three-level, 60,000-square-foot expansion in January.

The school, which opened in 2000, expects to gradually add grades 9-12, at a rate of 90 to 100 students per year for the next five years.

TWO MAJOR EAST SIDE PROJECTS

Hope Community Academy’s expansion project would include 20 new classrooms, a cultural center and regulation gymnasium, as well as renovations to the existing building’s kitchen and cafeteria, administrative space and some classrooms.

In addition to the physical expansion, the funds will help acquire and possibly remove three neighboring residential properties in order to build required parking, though the school is seeking a zoning variance from those parking requirements as most students are bused in.

In a Nov. 16 letter, which raised a variety of concerns related to the project, the Payne-Phalen Community Council said neighborhood residents have objected to “interrupting the fabric and character of an older residential neighborhood” with a new surface parking lot.

“HOPE does not want to build more parking than is needed,” said J. Kou Vang, a representative for the academy, in a letter to the city. He said the school expansion will eliminate 24 of 70 existing stalls, and a new lot would add back 27 unless the city allows a variance.

The city council voted to give preliminary approval to $23 million in conduit revenue bonds for the school, with council members Nelsie Yang and Mitra Jalali opposed. A final vote is likely in December.

The council then voted 5-2, along the same lines, to give preliminary approval to $15 million in conduit revenue bonds for the Minnesota Math and Science Academy, a K-12 charter school that plans to modify 12,000 square feet of its interior space.

The 6-year-old school, which has 560 students and draws a large population of East African immigrants, expects to add 60 students over the next two years, mostly in the upper grades.

TAKING PRIVATE PROPERTY OFF THE TAX ROLLS FOREVER

So why has helping charter schools expand become controversial? Among the stated reasons, city officials have raised concern that those expansions often take private property — especially valuable industrial land — off the tax rolls forever.

In September, the city council debated pausing any future bond issues for charter schools until the issue could be studied at length. They chose instead to ask the city’s planning department to report back by March, without putting a temporary hold on upcoming conduit bond requests as initially proposed.

At the recent meeting, Jalali said her “no” vote was not based on the two charter school proposals in particular. “It’s not about any individual schools, but rather the policy reforms we’re trying to make,” she said.

Just prior to the vote, Yang shared her concerns about charter schools at length, arguing that the city lacked sufficient data to proceed and had a duty to promote accountability in education.

“Their board members are not elected by our community, so who do we go to whenever there is a problem in our charter schools?” Yang said. “We need to make sure our public dollars have public oversight.”

City officials have cautioned that a city study will focus primarily on tax base, and not on more philosophical issues related to educational opportunity.

“I’m really sick and tired of having this conversation at the city level,” Yang said. “We need to bring it to a different level of government.”

ST. PAUL DISTRICT LOSING STUDENTS TO CHARTERS?

Charter school critics point to the impact that the growing number of schools has on enrollment and per-pupil funding in the traditional St. Paul Public Schools system, which was losing students even before the pandemic.

According to the St. Paul-based Center for School Change, enrollment in St. Paul charter schools more than quadrupled from 3,600 to 15,800 students from 2001-02 to 2019-20. Most of that growth has been led by low-income students and students of color.

During the same time, traditional public school enrollment in St. Paul dropped 21 percent, from 43,700 to 34,700 students.

Nationally, critics of charter schools have long made the argument that they’ve been used as vehicles for white families to pull their students out of high-minority school districts without physically moving out of the district entirely.

That argument has been complicated by the growth of ethnic charter schools, which appeal to high-risk populations with high dropout rates in the traditional public school system.

CITY APPROVED BOND FUNDING FOR HMONG CHARTER SCHOOL

In late August, a divided city council voted 4-3 to approve $36 million in tax-exempt bond funding for Hmong College Prep Academy in St. Paul’s Como neighborhood. Enrollment at the school has doubled in eight years to 2,350 students.

“It’s important to have culturally relevant education,” said council member Dai Thao, who has been supportive of recent charter school bond requests. “When they know their past … they don’t have to worry about identity issues. They know their history, and they have a place in this world.”

Still, ethnic charter schools do nothing to quell concerns about the re-segregation of public education.

In 2019, the St. Paul Federation of Educators sent questionnaires to school board and city council candidates, asking them if they would support a moratorium on new charter schools and charter school expansions.

The federation received a gamut of responses, but Yang has been the most aggressive in reminding voters on social media that she is a “St. Paul Federation of Educators endorsed candidate.”

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