A prominent nonprofit group that has helped lure several charter schools to Baton Rouge announced Thursday it will build facilities for five of these public — but independently run — schools over the next three years, breaking ground on the first one this summer.
Chris Meyer, president and CEO of New Schools for Baton Rouge, announced the organization’s foray into school construction during its annual conference, “Education Ecosystem Summit.”
“Instead of building $55 and $56 million facilities for the select few, we are building facilities for all children,” said Meyer, making a dig at the hefty price tags to renovate Baton Rouge Magnet High and construct the new Lee High School set to open this year.
The move into school construction comes as New Schools, which has provided varying levels of financial support to five charter school organizations in Baton Rouge as well a couple of private schools, shepherds a second wave of charter schools into the capital city.
Three of those charter groups submitted applications last month to the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board to launch charter schools: IDEA Public Schools based in Rio Grande Valley, Texas, as well as New Orleans-based Collegiate Academies and Inspire New Orleans Charter Schools.
Two of three groups applied partly based on promises made by New Schools that when they launch, they will have good facilities waiting for them. A fourth group, Tucson, Arizona-based BASIS Schools, had planned to apply this round but delayed for at least a year. BASIS also is looking to New Schools for at least one of its school buildings, a facility that won’t be ready until 2018 at the earliest.
All four groups stand to receive hundreds of thousands — perhaps even millions — in startup funds or administrative assistance from the 4-year-old New Schools, which has tapped both public and privately raised money to help charter schools get going. Representatives from schools the group plans to support were present for Thursday’s conference held at the Shaw Center for the Arts.
IDEA’s Tom Torkelson said Baton Rouge’s response to his group’s plan to set up at several schools in the city has been remarkable.
“I will tell you no community made as much of an impression on our hearts and on our minds,” Torkelson said.
IDEA runs dozens of schools in the Rio Grande Valley and has been fast expanding in San Antonio and Austin. He said Baton Rouge is poised to grow fast as well, not just for IDEA but for all charter schools.
“Guys, this is doable,” Torkelson said. “We can, in not just 15 years, not in 20 years, we can in the next five years completely transform what people think is possible for schools in Baton Rouge.”
Meyer outlined New Schools’ new facility plan in broad strokes. He said New Schools is forming a separate construction corporation with a partner he’s not ready to name.
The corporation would finance school construction via a revolving loan fund of roughly $10 million raised from private donations. He said the land for schools would either be donated or made available through low-cost leases.
Meyers estimated the total cost to build all five schools at $60 million to $70 million, with the schools serving an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 students.
The first New Schools facility, which would be ready by 2017, would be a short-term “incubator” building designated for Collegiate Academies and another still-to-be-determined charter school, Meyer said. Three more would arrive in 2018, one for BASIS and two for IDEA. By 2019, New Schools plans to build Collegiate Academies a permanent high school campus, he said.
Facilities have been a major obstacle to the growth of charter schools in Baton Rouge. Aside from for-profit charter groups with construction arms, most charter schools have tried to lease or refurbish old school buildings to set up shop.
Most of those buildings are controlled by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, which has become increasingly critical of charters.
The school system, the second-largest in the state, is looking to cut at least $15 million in advance of the 2016-17 school year, cuts officials blame in large part on the money it is required to redirect to the charters.
The five charter organizations New Schools already supports are located in buildings formerly owned by the parish school system but are now under the control of the state-run Recovery School District. Those buildings, all of them old, have fallen into further disrepair because of a long-standing standoff between RSD and the school system over who is legally obliged to fund repairs.
Collegiate Academies, which already has a charter to occupy an RSD building, opted not to locate in Istrouma High School, where it was slated to go, and has yet to set up any schools in Baton Rouge.
In January, the parish school system regained control of Istrouma and plans to reopen it in 2017 as a neighborhood high school.
While New Schools is prepared to go it alone, Meyer said he still holds out hope of working out agreements with East Baton Rouge school officials.
Meyer told conferencegoers Thursday that traditional public education is out of date and needs to adapt to a changing world.
“We have an opportunity in Baton Rouge to have a new way of doing things,” he said.