Saltzman Wants Charter School Building Action

Saltzman with Piccolo

A key legislator wants to crack down on Minnesota charter school-related organizations that build schools with public money but without public oversight.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, plans a Monday subcommittee hearing on the topic that she calls "troubling transactions."

Saying that charter schools are valuable, Saltzman said the controversy is about whether school-related organizations should be allowed to use a legal loophole to construct buildings for charter schools. She said it appears that in some cases those organizations, or individuals in them, financially benefit from construction that has no oversight by public officials.

Charter schools are public schools with specific missions. They are open free to anyone, but usually limit enrollment numbers.

State law forbids charter schools from owning buildings, but the state does provide what is known as "lease aid" so they may obtain facilities. The problem has arisen with the creation of school-related groups that use the state aid to build instead of lease buildings.

The Minneapolis-based Star Tribune Sunday reported that 18 of the state’s 153 charter schools have built facilities, financed with $178 million in junk bonds, which are loans with a high risk of failure. A dozen more schools have begun looking into buying or building facilities.

Saltzman said her subcommittee will examine whether charter schools, which are public, should go through the same public financing process as other schools.

"We need to restore the public trust," she said.

Eugene Piccolo, Minnesota Association of Charter Schools executive director, on Tuesday said that charter schools’ accountability was increased in the 2009 legislative session and his organization supports more public involvement.

While his group wants charter schools to be able to own buildings, the question of ownership is key, and unanswered, he added.

"In the end, who owns these buildings?" Saltzman asked, saying they were built with public funds but the school-related groups appear to actually own them.

About 35,000 Minnesotan students attend charter schools, with 70 percent of the schools in the Twin Cities area.