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Prospective charter school operators resign themselves to the private space process

Finding space to open a charter school in New York has never been easy. But to the newest crop of potential charter school leaders, the past looks like a cakewalk.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s coolness toward charter schools and co-locations mean that few applicants planning to open a charter school in the future are counting on public space. Instead, they’re strategizing about how to navigate the rough and tumble (and very expensive) New York City real estate market and construction world.

Just as thousands of charter school supporters were arriving in Albany to push for city space and facilities funding, about 30 charter school board members and educators gathered for a discussion moderated by the nonprofit Civic Builders, during which anxiety flowed as freely as the coffee.

“There’s a clarity to the marketplace now,” explained David Umansky, CEO of Civic Builders, which helps develop private space for charter schools. “The folks who are applying for charters aren’t anticipating they’re going to get co-located space. There’s a huge anxiety around that, but there’s also, ‘I understand that. I’m kind of screwed, but at least I know.'”

For the last decade, many charter schools benefitted from the Department of Education’s policy of co-locating many charter schools, allowing them to redirect the money and time that would otherwise go into securing private space.

Still, serving students in private space is nothing new. Dozens of charter schools already serve their students in buildings that they own or lease, rather than in public space. (That arrangement has been more common among independent charter schools than among schools that belong to a network, which were more successful at securing public space during the Bloomberg administration.)

But those looking to open a charter school in the future face some new hurdles in making those plans work. Number one: the city’s real estate market, which is continuing to heat up.

“We’re mostly in the south Bronx, and we’ve seen facilities go from $20 to $30 a square foot in a couple years,” said Kevin Kearns, a member of the Family Life Charter School’s board of trustees. “It’s starting to really put pressure on budgets.”

De Blasio’s position co-locations has so far been a mixed bag for charter schools. Last week, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced that the majority of new charter school co-locations approved at the end of the Bloomberg administration would be allowed to go through for this fall. But the mayor’s extensive pre-kindergarten push is expected to take up most remaining space in public school buildings.

Kearns, who is currently searching for private space for Family Life’s newest school, said his biggest obstacle now isn’t political, but financial.

“We’re all looking at the same properties with the same revenue,” he said, referring to how many charter operators are in the market for similarly priced spaces.

Other problems are longstanding, like the difficulty of finding space big enough for a school but small enough to finance. Real estate agents don’t always understand the complexities of finding space for charter schools, Heketi Community Charter School founder Cynthia Rosario warned. And running a new charter school with a few dozen students in private space requires significant capital funding—preferably of the “fairy godmother” variety.

Still, Kenneth Mbonu, a member of the International Charter School’s board of trustees, said his organization preferred to tackle those problems head-on. He said the board had never even considered counting on public space for the school, which is applying for a charter to open in fall of 2015.

“We knew de Blasio was going to win, and we knew that was his priority,” Mbonu said.