Andrew Freeman: Homeless Schools And The Masters Of Making Do – January 18, 2012

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In Humboldt County’s earliest days, when the need for a new school arose, the community banded together and simply built it. Throughout the 20th century, new campuses were built to fit the times, and they have seen changes and renovations over the years.

Today in the county, we have some existing traditional public school campuses in need of renovation. However, this column is going to focus on new and existing charter schools, and the difficult task they have of finding a place to call home.

First, a few facts on charter schools. A charter school is a publicly funded school that is not subject to some of the rules, regulations and codes that apply to traditional public schools. Charter schools often have a certain niche that draws a particular population of students.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2008-2009, there were 4,700 charter schools operating in 40 states and serving 1.4 million students. In the past two decades at least 22 new public charter schools have been born in Humboldt County, and as the trend shows, a number of new schools are on the way.

So, when a new school is born, how does it find a home?

Unfortunately, it’s not like the old days when you just pick a plot of land and build the vision.  Today you have education codes, zoning regulations, building codes – all of which vary depending where you’re at. It often costs thousands of dollars in studies, consultants, and permit application fees before you can start building.

Every charter school has its own “facility” story. The school I work with, Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy, has had its own struggle with securing a site. Even though our school has existed for over a decade and has had success in providing a high quality education, we have never had a facility that suits our needs. Our facility history has been one of bouncing from a house, to an old restaurant, to a church, to a Masonic Temple, to another church.

We have become masters of “making do.” All the while, we have worked hard to secure a site and build a facility of our own. We have dreamed and envisioned what this site would look like, and yet many obstacles and complications still stand in our way. I am certain we will someday fulfill our vision, but it should never, ever take this long and be this difficult.

Let’s go over some of the barriers that charter schools face when trying to design and build a new facility or renovate an existing one.

First, the sponsoring school district is supposed to bear some responsibility in helping the charter school find a good site and facility. In 2000, voters in California passed Proposition 39, which requires school districts to provide charter schools with facilities that are “reasonably equivalent” to other schools in the district. This often is not followed through on.

In all fairness to school districts, they often don’t have the funding or resources themselves to provide such facilities to the charter schools they sponsor. Most charter schools are on their own to find and fund a site and facility.

While support from the sponsoring school district is an important factor in a charter school’s success in finding a facility, perhaps more crucial is support from local governments. Even if a charter school finds a suitable site, it will be subject to local zoning ordinances and building codes.

Under California law, a charter school’s governing board does have the authority to exempt itself from certain local zoning restrictions. Still, the school must obtain a permit from planning and building departments before breaking any ground.

The permitting process can include but is not limited to biological, geologic, soil, archaeological and traffic studies that cost thousands of dollars to conduct. Then, thousands more are spent to have a consultant produce a report that explains how the school will mitigate any negative impacts. Then a few thousand dollars more are spent to apply to the local governing body for a permit.

If you’re lucky, the permit is granted. Then, thousands more are spent following through on all the mitigations you’ve promised to make – and all of this before you even start on the facility itself!

Unless a charter school has foundational support, or some wealthy benefactors, it will be a long and hard road before any dreams of a high quality facility come to fruition. The school itself simply cannot afford such costs.

It is not my intention here to be dismissive of safety concerns and building standards. What I am saying is that charter schools don’t have the money and resources to meet these standards.

Here’s another way to think about it. There was a major landslide this past March that shut down Highway 101 just north of Garberville. Naturally, it was urgent to get the road back open and crews jumped on the scene, worked day and night, and within five days the highway was reopened to traffic both directions. Throughout the summer and fall, crews continued to work to stabilize the slide, and this November the work was completed. The cost was $8 million.

What I’m proposing is that we respond to our school’s facility needs the same way we would respond to a highway-blocking landslide. When a school needs an adequate facility, it should be considered an urgent matter that is given whatever funding is required and is handled without delay. The opening of a road is critical to our local economy. The benefits of a healthy school are immeasurable.

Admittedly, this turned out to be a really a difficult column to write and I am left with more questions than answers. Who is responsible for funding facilities for new schools? What are reasonable safety regulations for these new schools? Is it fair to charge a school the fees that are required for building permits when the work they are doing is a public service?

I invite local educators, parents, students and community members interested in solutions for improving our children’s education to begin a local dialogue. Further, this column has only scratched the surface in regards to the story of schools and what they go through to provide high quality facilities.

Therefore, I am interested in collecting stories from schools regarding their plights to renovate or build new facilities to be posted on my soon to arrive blog site that will be available for all to read. Contact me or send your stories to

Andrew Freeman is a teacher at Northcoast Preparatory Academy.






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