The roof at Belmont Charter School leaks, the building doesn’t have air-conditioning, and the playground — deemed unsafe by an inspector — is fenced off from students.
The West Philadelphia school can’t fix those problems, it says, because it doesn’t own the building. The Philadelphia School District does.
To make the repairs, the charter operator wants to buy the building from the district. “We see it as the only way forward at this point,” said Jennifer Faustman, Belmont’s CEO.
District officials have recommended the sale, with a provision that would enable the district to buy the building back.
Still, some school board members have expressed reservations about selling. The school has a catchment giving students in the surrounding area the right to attend it — stoking concern that the district is turning over not just a building, but its presence in the neighborhood.
“Any number of charter schools could come before us and make the same kind of demand,” Joyce Wilkerson, the school board’s president, said at a meeting last month. “Going forward," she said, the board will “need to consider a policy that would clearly state we will not sell district buildings” with catchments.
The sale — which the school board is scheduled to vote on Thursday — is an example of the complex relationship between charters and school districts. While charters are independently run, in Pennsylvania they are funded by districts, which don’t provide facilities. Charters must rent or buy space.
But in some cases, Philadelphia has turned over the management of struggling district schools to charter operators. The district owns those buildings.
In total, 27 charter schools are located in district buildings, said district spokesperson Megan Lello. Philadelphia has 87 charters that educate about one-third, or 70,000, of the city’s public school students.
Because public money pays for students to attend Belmont Charter School, “it makes more sense for the public to retain and control the asset,” said Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University who studies school finance.
It’s understandable that the charter school would want better building conditions, Baker said, and it would be "in the district’s own best interest to find some way to invest in upgrading the facility.” But he noted that could raise “equity concerns” in a district with widespread facilities needs.
Belmont has occupied the school building for 17 years. “It’s not like we’re jumping the gun, getting in here the first year and trying to take over the building,” Faustman said. “We really have tried to work with the district.”
The resolution before the school board would allow the district to sell the building at 4030 Brown St. to Belmont Futures — a nonprofit created for the purchase — for $2.8 million. District officials did not respond to a question this week on how the price was calculated. Kirk Dorn, a media consultant working for Belmont, said it was “derived from appraisals obtained by the School District and buyer.” City assessors value the property at $2.4 million.
The agreement would give the district the right to buy the building back for the sale price plus the cost of improvements if it is “no longer used for educational purposes,” or if the charter is surrendered or terminated, according to the resolution. The district has the ability to revoke charters, though the process is expensive and time-consuming.
It also includes an “anti-speculation” covenant. Real estate lawyers said such language is often intended to prohibit the buyer from flipping the property, though they did not know the details of the district’s proposed agreement with Belmont.
The district did not release a copy of the agreement or address the specifics of what it would prevent. It also did not respond to a question on the legality of selling the building, an issue board member Christopher McGinley raised at a recent committee hearing.
While Pennsylvania law gives school boards authority to sell buildings that are unused and unnecessary, the Belmont building is “used, and it’s necessary,” McGinley said.
Belmont disagrees. “They don’t have a necessary use for the building other than the charter existing,” Faustman said.
She called the deal a “win-win" because it would allow the district to pay off $1 million in debt on the building. Belmont leases the building from the district for $246,000 a year, she said.
The charter school’s board is chaired by West Philadelphia landlord Michael Karp. PlanPhilly reported in February that Karp believed Mayor Jim Kenney — who last year appointed the city’s new school board — could help him buy the school building.
“The mayor controls the School District,” Karp told PlanPhilly. “Here’s local control, here’s the fact he appointed all the school board members to do the right thing. But nothing happened.”
Belmont would pay for the building with donations by its board members, according to Dorn. It estimates that immediate improvements — a new roof and new heating and air-conditioning system — would cost $500,000, which Dorn said would also be donated by the board.
It can be hard to regain urban land when it’s needed, said Baker, the Rutgers professor. Such transactions can also involve tax money being used to buy the same property twice.
“Maybe the public buys it back, plus the renovations. But the public owned it to begin with,” he said.