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Putting the ‘public’ back into ‘public charter schools’

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David Greenwood-Sanchez
St. Paul’s battle over what to do with the St. Andrew’s church building highlights an important question about public charter schools: Just how public are they?

The Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS), which has expressed the need to demolish the historic St. Andrew’s church building in order to increase its enrollment, continues to argue that as the property owner, it can do as it pleases. This overlooks a crucial point, namely that TCGIS is not a traditional private entity; it is a public charter school. It offers a tuition-free education, paid for by state taxpayer dollars (totaling $5.9 million for the 2017-18 year). It also received $8.5 million in conduit bonds in 2013 to remodel the school site and church, which it now wants to destroy.

TCGIS has also distanced itself from the public sphere to combat historic designation of St. Andrew’s, which was designed by St. Paul’s first City Architect, Charles A. Hausler. (Hausler, a renowned Minnesota architect, has six buildings on the National Register, including the Minnesota Building, the Minnesota Milk Company Building, and the St. Anthony and Riverview Public Libraries). Even though our public institutions – St. Paul’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) – have recommended the building for historic designation, TCGIS claims that this is strictly a private issue, and one that can’t be “forced” upon it.

When we allow public charter schools to shift between public and private spheres at their convenience, we undermine our public institutions, our communities, and our rights as taxpayers. The end result is a dangerous one — that our public charter schools only carry the quality of “public” at the moment of acquiring funds.

This lack of accountability extends to other issues, particularly the racial and socioeconomic integration of our school system. As the St. Paul NAACP has stated, “TCGIS’ student population is 87% white, 13% students of color, and only 7% low-income (qualifying for free-or-reduced-price lunch). In stark contrast, the surrounding school district, St. Paul Public Schools, is 21% white, 79% students of color, and 68% low-income. Expansion of such a predominantly white and relatively wealthy charter school in the heart of the city would frustrate efforts to desegregate St. Paul schools and contribute to further racial and socioeconomic segregation.”

Is this the type of school system that was envisioned when, in 1992, Minnesota opened the nation’s first charter schools? Does the public have no say in these matters? Is charter school performance the only area in which accountability is accepted?

I applaud my Como Area neighbors who have organized as Save Historic Saint Andrew’s (SHSA) to confront TCGIS and the expansion of the charter school system. In doing so, they are reminding us that public accountability – and this is much more than the careful monitoring of test scores – always accompanies public dollars. This type of community engagement and debate is long overdue, and will only serve to sharpen the quality and character of our charter schools. I challenge the St. Paul City Council, and in particular, Council President Amy Brendmoen, to follow their lead.

Note: The proposed demolition of the St. Andrew’s church building is scheduled for public debate before the St. Paul City Council on March 20.

David Greenwood-Sanchez is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is originally from St. Paul, and attended St. Paul Central. He currently lives in Mexico City, as a Fulbright-Hays DDRA fellow. His parents, Stephen and Rosario, are both members of the Save Historic Saint Andrew’s group. 

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Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/19/2019 - 11:12 am.

    There seem to be two issues here: historic preservation of a building that is now owned by a private group that has benefited from public tax dollars to fund its activities, and the segregated nature of Minnesota’s charter schools.

    We should not confuse the existence of the German Immersion School with some mythical “desegregation” of schools that is sought by charter schools. Or, indeed, by any public school system in the Twin Cities.

    The German Immersion School is predominantly populated by white students. Most of our charter schools are deliberately segregated by race and ethnic or religious groups, producing schools that are mostly black or mostly Latino or Hmong or Somali, etc. The excuse for this strong re-segregation of our schools by charters is that it is by parental
    choice,” and thus is innocuous. Oh, my.

    In other words, charter schools strongly re-segregte our schools. And they use public funding to do that.

    That has nothing to do with historic preservation.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/19/2019 - 11:34 am.

      Well put. The attempt to conflate the two issues is deliberate. The historic preservation arguments have no merit, so they are going after charter schools. I certainly have issues with charter schools myself – including the voluntary re-segregation issue you address. But you aren’t going to solve that by opposing this school’s expansion. Its a totally disingenuous argument.

      • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/20/2019 - 07:45 pm.

        I’m not sure about the merits or lack thereof of the Church. However, is the school entirely private. Nope. They take state and most certainly Federal education dollars. That take it can be argued comes with strings attached.

        A simple test. If a charter school were entirely private they did not have to have equal access to their charter school. But charter schools due to their federal funding make them obligated to provide equal access and state monitoring. That fact was clearly established in the Tarek Bin Ziyad Academy case.

        Are we now saying a public Charter School can simply claim its a private entity especially regarding community input. Many facets of a charter schools operation are open to public scrutiny. Why should that not include their building. Some of the same processes that apply to public schools would have to apply here. The community would have to approach the Dept of Education and protest changes to the community. Not sure how successful they would be or the legal process that could be available, but its not i believe a situation where they could be told to buzz off.

        Imagine if a city allows a private soccer club to use its fields. Is that club entirely private to any member of that city. Nope. They have to admit any member of the city. They have to open their books.

        Else you could have a corrupt city where a hypothetical mayor could palm off city operations to a private entity who happens to be his cousins all without any public scrutiny.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/21/2019 - 11:14 am.

          Actually, it is a situation where they absolutely can tell them to “buzz off.” Without question.

          Charter schools are a complicated mix of public and private. But the idea that you can work this bad faith historic preservation argument into the public/private distinction is nonsense.

          As I said, I have some issues with charter schools. But I would prefer a charter school to a decrepit building sitting empty. I would prefer people not to waste my tax dollars on empty, run-down buildings.

          • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/21/2019 - 03:35 pm.

            The Tarek Bin Ziyad Academy tried that. And they ended up being closed. Theres state and federal money that flows into each student.

            You can’t take a small Charter School in a neighborhood and make it into a full fledged school (as they keep expanding grades) in a smaller neighborhood and claim neighbors have no input. That won’t fly.

            Just because they can’t use it and may ( i repeat may) leave doesn’t mean someone else can’t use it for a more suitable purpose. Its done all the time.

            • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/21/2019 - 05:09 pm.

              Um, no.

              The Tarek Bin Zayed school got shut down because it was running a religious school with public funds. From a legal standpoint, there is really nothing even remotely relevant to this case.

              Your description of the growth of the school is complete fiction. I’ll give you a pass on that point since SHSA has made the same misrepresentations.

              And, no, old, run-down churches that need millions to repair don’t typically get fixed up and used for other purposes. Its possible, but extremely unlikely. What is likely is that it they have to sell for less because the value has been depressed by the historic designation, taxpayers will be compensating the school sponsor for the difference.

              • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/21/2019 - 08:41 pm.

                Actually from a legal standpoint the TBZ school issue is completely relevant. ie. the state has far more input into the direction of a charter school. That destroys your argument that they’re unaccountable in any aspect.

                The growth of the school is not fiction. Anything you disagree with is not fiction. The school has been increasing the grade levels it offers steadily. That’s a fact. Not “fiction” out of facts that don’t meet the narrative. You may want to do some basic research of the facts first.

                And yes old churches have been converted into homes, condos and everything else. Another fact. Not fictional arguments.

                • Submitted by Mary Zellmer on 02/22/2019 - 03:37 pm.

                  You are incorrect! TCGIS was a K-8 school when it moved to the current location! The only thing that has occurred is that there has not been attrition of students at higher grade levels that the school experienced in its early years when it did not have the capability to offer more variety of middle school electives or extra-curricular activities as a new organization. As these things became available, student retention has soared — therefore, the size of the upper grades has grown, leading to space constraints. No additional “levels” or grades have been added, just more students sticking around for the full 9 years.

                  • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/23/2019 - 06:17 am.

                    “Founded: 2005 with Kindergarten and Grade 1; fully expanded to K-8 in 2012-2013”

                    Which means some grades were added close to the time the school moved to the new location. If retention/yields were increasing in that space then the size of lower accepting grades should have been lowered based on the space and location the school fully knew it was moving into. Even Harvard when they admit have a ball park figure of retention. The school had five years to watch yields uptick , thereby increasing enrollment.

                    However, please understand my issue is not about the school. Rather being told that in a Federal funded charter school the local community has no role in petitioning the State or Feds.

                    For example if a city/school gave a soccer club free access to fields (Federal funds thereof) and any parent asking the club about for example where does the money go or safety being told to buzz off we’re private. Would you accept that argument ? What if that club had no minorities ? What if that club had board members who had serious issues ? Still private ?

          • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/21/2019 - 03:40 pm.

            Its complete nonsense to believe a federally funded school can run without state or city oversight and claim complete private privileges. They don’t meet the basic test of admitting who they can please cause the state can shut them down. And they’re still totally private. Total nonsense.

            I may not agree with the historical claim, but the neighbors have every right to petition the state education on an argument of the changing nature of the school that doesn’t serve the neighborhood and keeps expanding its charter. Again as the persons who ran Tarek Bin Ziyad Academy.

            • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/21/2019 - 05:17 pm.

              Again, I’ll give you a pass on your incorrect facts because you are probably relying on the falsehoods presented by SHSA.

              I’m not why you think the private/public distinction is at all relevant. I made it clear in my comment above that charter schools are a mix of public and private. It wouldn’t matter if it was a public building. The entity owns the building. There was no historic designation when it was acquired. Some people want to apply one after the fact. The idea that the entity being public gives this group any rights above the normal process is bonkers.

              People can petition whatever they want. Courts are clogged with frivolous, bad faith claims made by dishonest and ignorant people.

              • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/21/2019 - 08:48 pm.

                Actually you have more misleading statements and assertions that the author of this article.

                The charter school is not the completely private entity that you’ve been positing all along. They’re completely accountable to the state Dept of Education. The group fighting them has a case to make by stating that the Charter school doesn’t serve community requirements for their continued expansion while increasing their footprint in the neighborhood. And not its not frivolous. They’re well covered in their concerns under Federal guidelines you seem unaware off.

                No its not frivolous.

                • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/22/2019 - 04:23 pm.

                  That’s completely false. If you are going to employ a complete lack of disregard for actual facts, I don’t know how to get through to you. Its like trying to convince Trump.

                  The case is so frivolous that the school’s attorney could go to court and make an argument solely by fart noises and win. Its nonsense. Its utterly frivolous.

            • Submitted by Cynthia Miller on 02/21/2019 - 09:16 pm.

              Charter schools are accountable to their school boards (many of which have mandatory community members) and to their authorizers.

              • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/23/2019 - 08:40 am.

                “Charter schools are accountable to their school boards (many of which have mandatory community members) and to their authorizers.”

                And under that authorizers responsibility the residents of that school district have every right to petition against locating/expanding a school. If your comment wishes to posit that local residents have no say, I post the section of the Minnesota Statute below.

                “Subd. 11.Review of proposals. In reviewing each proposal, …project. The commissioner must include comments from residents of the school district in the review and comment. ”

                I support Charter Schools completely. I only pointing to the law in my arguments against the so called “buzz off” stance taken by some. Any entity in this country simply can’t take Federal money and get outraged when there are all kinds of strings attached to that money.

          • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/21/2019 - 03:47 pm.

            https://www.qualitycharters.org/research-policies/archive/federal-policy-102-how-federal-policy-impacts-charter-school-oversight/

            “Direct requirements, or federal mandates, apply to charter schools in much the same way as to traditional public schools. They commonly relate to ensuring fairness for all students and families.

            Spending and Consultation
            As recipients of federal funds, charter schools must spend federal money appropriately: in the right amount, at the correct location, and for the approved purpose. ”

            There’s plenty more in that link that provides grounds for challenge. Its complete nonsense to believe you can run a private “club” with federal dollars.

            • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/21/2019 - 05:24 pm.

              Yeah, the idea that any of this applies to a historic designation process is absurd.

              There is a process for this. Its just not going well for SHSA because their case has so little merit. They don’t have the support they claim they have.

              The church is getting torn down. And that’s just fine.

              Again, I’m not a fan of charter schools even. But that’s not a problem you can fix by stopping a school to preserve a decrepit abandoned building.

              • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/21/2019 - 08:56 pm.

                Sure the Historic designation may not be the right fight. Challenging them through the State Dept of Education on Federal guidelines for Charter Schools would be a more efficient rout IMO. Either way its not the “they’re private so buzz off” argument you wish to posit.

                And actually their fight seems to have gained more traction than you wish to let on.

                https://www.twincities.com/2018/12/08/german-schools-quest-to-raze-landmark-st-paul-church-may-fall-to-city-council/

                • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/22/2019 - 04:37 pm.

                  And the city council is part of the appeals process. And they will vote to tear it down, if for no other reason than it will cost the city millions if they don’t. Also, because they would prefer a busy school to an empty decrepit church.

                  You don’t like charter schools – I get it. But you are fighting the wrong battle here.

                  • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/22/2019 - 07:57 pm.

                    Nowhere did i say that i’m against charter schools. It displays your lack of understanding of facts i’ve been positing all along. My point is all along the Charter School can’t just tell the local community to “buzz off”.

                    The vote before the City council won’t be as easy as you claim, Especially if the opponents get a historical designation. It is possible that some persons live in the world of hyper local city and union politics and believe their cronies can run roughshod over average citizens over any issue. I understand that’s part of the good old boy politics in many cities.

              • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/21/2019 - 09:14 pm.

                https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b198e03ee1759f2bea1054e/t/5b44afdd562fa7fde604d381/1531228125663/TCGIS+letter+to+MDE+about+bldng+project.png

                The above is the letter sent by the school requesting permission. So its not the “we’re private so buzz off” scenario that people wish to “expertly” posit on this board. The state for bonding and other reasons has to approve. And that’s where the locals can protest.

                And the school itself on its own website i believe has looked at alternate locations. Which means imo even they’re aware of the state approval process.

                I don’t care about the result, but don’t tell me they’re so private everyone else has to “buzz off”. Thats just nonsense.

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/19/2019 - 11:17 am.

    What an incredibly dishonest piece.

    St. Andrews stopped operating as a church in 2010. The diocese, facing budget constraints – including priest abuse settlements – closed an expensive-to-maintain old church with declining attendence.

    The church, and the attached school, was sold to the TCGIS several years later. At the time of the sale, there were no restrictions on what could happen to the church. No historic designation. Nothing.

    The school moved into the old church school, and although the church itself was a poor fit, it was used as a makeshift gym, among other uses. As the school grew, it required more space and plans were made to tear down the church. It was only then that the historic designation and oppostion to tearing down the church came up. This opposition did not come with anyone to actually buy the church or to provide the significant funds necessary to restore it. It was simply to prevent th school from tearing down the church.

    The most offensive part of this piece is the arrogance in claiming that Mr. Greenwood-Sanchez’s position is in the interest of the public. I would argue that the public is much better served by a successful school than by keeping a decrepit old church that no one will use.

    Further, given that the school will likely end up moving if it can’t proceed with tearing down its own property, it will likely lose millions of dollars, which as Mr. Greenwood-Sanchez points out, is largely public money. Again, the school purchased the property without restrictions. Placing a historic designation or any other restriction on tearing down the church will significantly depress the value of the property. If anything, the public interest is protecting the public from groups like SHSA who are content to waste public money on old buildings that won’t be used.

  3. Submitted by Anthony Radecki on 02/19/2019 - 11:42 am.

    It should be noted that Mr. Greenwood-Sanchez’s parents are founding members of Save Historic Saint Anthony. Well this done not disqualify him from entering his opinion into the public sphere – readers should not confuse him as a dispassionate observer.

  4. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 02/19/2019 - 12:17 pm.

    It does seem that MinnPost could note the writer’s family affiliation with one side of this controversy.

  5. Submitted by Mary Zellmer on 02/19/2019 - 01:48 pm.

    Points for readers to consider.
    1. TCGIS is NOT “expanding enrollment.” Stop propagating false information.
    2. The author intentionally misleads by quoting the $8.5 million figure and referring only to the former church building. That figure was used to fully remodel the old school building and build an entirely new addition. Very little was done to the former church structure. You clearly wish only to inflame with this juxtaposition and omission of factual detail. The author conveniently sidesteps any consideration of the millions it would cost the school and “public” to repair and maintain this structure — the price tag for which will surely skyrocket with an historical designation! Your logic fails on this one.
    3. Charter schools have accountability to their authorizer and to the state. Importantly they also must follow the will of parents who have far more direct input into their kids education than in other public schools. This point is a red herring meant to distract from the only valid points in this debate — should this building be designated an historic building and why or why not.

  6. Submitted by Cynthia Miller on 02/19/2019 - 02:02 pm.

    Charters schools have been the topic of much discussion since they started. Many people don’t like them, and they have a right to that opinion. But if they want things changed, they should contact their representatives, head to the Capitol, attend committee hearings, form coalitions, and work for a change in the law. Bullying a school to make it leave a neighborhood, or close altogether, is not the way things ought to be done in a democracy.

  7. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/19/2019 - 04:47 pm.

    I know I have asked this question before, but does Minnpost do any oversight of Community Voices pieces? Any fact-checking? Any requirement to disclose conflicts?

  8. Submitted by Ole Johnson on 02/20/2019 - 08:58 am.

    So anyone taking tax dollars has to play the tune that the tax payers call for?

    I am not for that. But if it does become the norm, then will it be applied equally to all recipients of tax money? Will activist groups that get grants have to obey the politicians? Will we be able to make demands on the families who get those free lunches?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/25/2019 - 12:20 pm.

      Reductio ad absurdum, although it’s not working here.

      Charter schools are taking tax money to provide a service that the state is constitutionally required to provide. If a private entity is receiving money to provide a service purportedly to the public, oversight is essential. An “activist group” that receives a government grant should be accountable, as should those involved in a public-private “partnership.” The “families who get those free lunches” are not providing a service when they receive aid.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/24/2019 - 06:43 pm.

    I have no dog in the race as far as this charter school and it’s property is concerned, but I can speak a little bit to the questions regarding Community Voices submissions. When I have submitted pieces in the past, I have have on occasion been asked to verify facts, or clarify factual statements. Also, I would point out the fact that this authors affiliation with his parents IS clearly stated, and THEIR affiliation with the preservation group is presented in the authors bio, so I don’t see any duplicity here any more than any other piece. Last week we had an article about affordable housing written by an undisclosed member of a housing deregulation group.

    Finally, these ARE opinion pieces, and as such serve as provocations of thought and discussion. CV is not different in that regard any other publication.

    I will say that I’ve frequently thought things get a little goofy at MInnpost when it comes to articles about charter schools. If I’m not mistaken the founder of Minnpost was also very active in promoting the beginning of the charter school movement in MN. I’m not sure what if any bearing that has in this case, but that’s been my impression in the past.

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