Nashville’s charter school pioneers can draft cutting-edge academic curricula, knock on thousands of doors to build an inaugural class of students, lay out rules and regulations to govern the classroom, and still have a lingering matter: They’re having trouble finding buildings.
Davidson County is in the middle of a charter school movement after the emergence of a more receptive state law, and Nashville’s newfound favorable outlook toward the publicly financed, privately operated schools has gained gads of attention. Nonetheless, some charter leaders are finding Nashville to be difficult terrain to secure property for their schools. Purchasing a building — which comes largely from their pocketbooks, not the district’s — frequently occurs just weeks before the school opens.
“It’s a huge challenge, because when your charter is approved, you don’t get a building,” said Greg Thompson, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Incubator, which has two Nashville charter schools set to open this year. The organization’s long-term plan is to launch 10 across the county.
“You’re a startup organization that has to go find a facility,” he said. “And the difficult thing about it is the state does not give money to charter schools for buildings. And it’s a lot of money.”
Charter school founders say anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of their budgets goes toward leasing or buying facilities. Smithson-Craighead Academy, which had leased a Metro-owned building for its middle school, earlier this month agreed to purchase the Metro Christian Academy building in Madison for a price tag believed to be slightly less than $2 million.
Most say there are two ways to approach the building issue: Work with the district to lease vacant Metro school space or navigate the process themselves to find and adapt private space. Either way, startup charter schools aren’t ideal candidates to receive large loans from banks.
Thompson, whose charter incubator is poised to bring Nashville Prep to temporary space at Tennessee State University in North Nashville and Liberty Collegiate to the former Head Start building on 10th Street in East Nashville, said he and other charter leaders are in discussions with Canyon-Agassi Partners, which would purchase commercial properties in Nashville, retrofit buildings and lease them back to charter schools. Canyon-Agassi is an arm of Los Angeles-baesed Canyon Partners — known for its urban development fund led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson — whose purpose is to spur investment in charter schools across the nation.
Thompson said the model has worked elsewhere. He believes implementing a similar arrangement here is the only way Nashville can continue to grow its base of charter schools.
“The lease payments would be structured at an affordable rate,” Thompson said. “Once the school has an operating history, then we can look at the school getting its own financing to purchase that property from the developer.”
Next school year, 11 charter schools will be operating in Nashville — five of them new. Meanwhile, nine additional groups have applied to open charters this cycle, proposals the Metro Nashville Board of Education is scheduled to review May 24. Among the latest batch of applicants, only one school has listed its desired location: Knowledge Academy, which plans to open in Hickory Hollow Mall.
As is the case with Knowledge Academy, the next wave of charter schools in Nashville is concentrated in southeast Davidson County, the city’s fastest growing area and home to the majority of the district’s population for whom English is a second language. Boston-based Building Excellent Schools, which supports Nashville’s charter incubator, has proposed a new Antioch-area school, as has LEAD Academy founder Jeremy Kane.
Kane, who will be operating two charter schools when a revamped Cameron Middle School opens this year, said charter founders shouldn’t act as if the district owes them anything.
“The relationship has changed with the district where I think now the district is much more open to choose partnerships, and actually understands how to do partnerships the right way,” said Kane, whose LEAD Academy leases space from Metro at the former Brookemeade Elementary School building in Bellevue.
“We were able to negotiate a perfectly suitable lease for us, and for the district,” Kane said. “But if you approach it as being owed something, I think you just set yourself up for disappointment. We’re public charter schools. We’re created to be laboratories. We’re created to be innovative. Facilities are the most expensive piece, outside of the human capital piece. It’s tough. It’s not easy to find these facilities, but I think track record is ... the majority of charter schools that were approved to open this July, they all have facilities outside of [help from] the district.”
In December, the school board, Mayor Karl Dean, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and others signed a so-called charter compact, a symbolic pledge of support for charter schools, which faced widespread hostility in Nashville just a few years ago. Part of the compact says the district is to include charter schools in its long-term strategic plans for facility usage.
Carol Swann, the district’s coordinator of charter schools, said Metro owns three buildings currently being used by charter schools. In July, that number will drop to two when the former Highland Heights Middle School building in East Nashville is transferred to KIPP Academy, which plans to expand a new high school into an unused portion of the building. KIPP already operates its middle school out of the other half.
Swann, who arrived in Nashville over the winter, called securing a building “the hardest thing” for a charter founder to do.
“It’s really hard to get anyone to lease space to you or sell space to you before you even have a school,” Swann said. “Someone who has a building or potentially a building that would house a school is going to look at longevity, sustainability, and frankly, are you going to have the money to pay for a long-term lease or even a short-term lease.”
Swann also said she doesn’t believe Nashville is nearing its capacity for charter schools from a real estate perspective.
“If we’re just talking building capacity, I don’t think that we’re anywhere close to saturating with charter schools,” Swann said.