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Charter school fight headed to City Hall

Monday, May 9, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

With an ordinance on the table that could mean an end for their current site plan exemptions, some Austin charter schools aren’t waiting for the fight to come to them.

Austin Achieve Public Schools, Goodwill Central Texas, Harmony Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, KIPP Austin Public Schools, Montessori for All, NYOS Charter School and Wayside Schools have formed a coalition to oppose the draft ordinance, which they say will place an undue burden on their operations. City Council members took a look at the issue prior to postponing a decision regarding the ordinance to their June 9 meeting.

Andy Linseisen, who is the manager for the Land Use Review Division in the city’s Development Services Department, gave Council an overview of the issue Thursday.

“It is an exemption that gives them very preferential treatment, and we should be applying our Land Development Code equally, to all public schools,” said Linseisen.

Linseisen said that charter schools do currently submit somewhat of a site plan but have a complete exemption from the city’s site development permit process and, unlike other area schools, are not subject to regulations such as full zoning compliance, parking regulations and water quality protections.

However, Traci Berry, who is a senior vice president with Goodwill Central Texas, told the Austin Monitor that, to be clear, charter schools were “not exempt from multiple layers of the process” and were required to get permits and pass inspections in order to be authorized by the Texas Education Agency. (Goodwill Central Texas operates a charter school.)

Charter school officials also note that they receive about $1,400 less in public funding per student than does the Austin Independent School District, receive no public money for facilities, do not have dedicated review staff and, unlike the local independent school districts (ISDs), are not exempt from drainage and impact fees.

That, Berry said, makes the new ordinance more restrictive than the interlocal agreements that ISDs have with the city.

“If you want to be equitable, be equitable,” said Berry. “We want to be neighborly. We aren’t trying to fight any of that. It’s just kind of this idea that (they) are not thrilled with charters and want to go make it more difficult for them.”

In her conversation with the Monitor, Berry made it clear that her main focus was on the students and the impact the proposed changes could have.

“I would say that any regulation that is more costly and time-consuming for any educator … that is not the kind of city we want to live in,” said Berry. “We should be putting our students first and creating opportunities for them.”

At the heart of the issue is that city code is written to exempt “public schools” from the process. However, due to interlocal agreements between the city and its various ISDs, the exemption doesn’t really apply to any schools other than charter schools — the code was written before the Legislature established charter schools, which, because they aren’t taxing entities, do not have interlocal agreements with the city.

Charter schools are, however, considered public schools and therefore do qualify for the site plan exemption, which means they do not have to go through the site plan process. And without interlocal agreements with the city, they are not subject to regulations such as development restrictions.

Linseisen said that this is “very challenging” for the city.

“We’ve been doing the best we can to at least protect public health and safety, but they aren’t subject to all of our codes and ordinances,” said Linseisen, who explained that the current ordinance is an attempt to mirror the restrictions in those existing interlocal agreements and create a “level playing field.”

But the charter schools that are opposed to the change say that the ordinance would not create a level field and would, instead, raise their costs significantly.

How much? Peter M. Hayes, owner of Project Management Services, Inc., estimated that, for example, compliance with Transportation Impact Analysis standards could mean that inner-city schools would be “off the table,” i.e. not viable as sites for new charter schools, and could increase the needed acreage and internal roads for other schools at a cost of $500,000. Water quality ponds could run additional expenses of $150,000 to $200,000, and the addition of six- to nine-month review times could mean charter schools would have to identify and fund sites two years prior to opening.

Revamping the code is supported by the Austin Neighborhoods Council, which passed a resolution in July 2015. That resolution asked the city to “require and enforce that any ‘public’ charter school comply with City development codes and ordinances; require and enforce that any ‘public’ charter school facility not exceed an established student-per-acre ratio (to be determined in compliance with AISD standards); and enforce state laws that apply to the illegal location of ‘public’ charter schools within the boundary limits of existing businesses that provide the sale of liquor or that provide housing for sex offenders.”

The resolution further asks that general “public” school zoning be established in the CodeNEXT code rewrite process that would apply to both charter schools and larger school districts in Austin.

But, according to ANC president Mary Ingle, the group isn’t particularly happy with the draft ordinance, either. Ingle told the Monitor that the current ordinance is “overly complicated” and needed to more closely mirror the existing agreements with schools.

“In order to make things fair across the board, charter schools need to comply with compatibility standards regardless of their school district or interlocal school agreement,” said Ingle, who pointed to the fact that the new ordinance included information about building heights and distances instead.

“If they are really trying to correct the bad code, they need to delete the sections that say compatibility standards do not apply to schools; they do apply in the interlocal agreements,” said Ingle. “It’s really about making the playing field level across the board, because this affects every lot in every neighborhood. Charter schools can just move in next door.”

Photo by Alpha made available through a Creative Commons license.

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