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Charters in Search of a Home

A vexing obstacle to the reform movement is that state law does not provide for the cost of building or buying a facility. One backer of a proposed new L.A. school is trying an unusual solution.


After scouring properties from downtown to the Miracle Mile, Rob Biniaz believes he has found the perfect home for the future Westlake Charter School.

The vacant office building on Wilshire Boulevard has a two-story library, auditorium, commercial kitchen, outdoor space for a playground, dozens of rooms and even a parking structure.

Biniaz, a former record and video game executive who chucked entertainment to dedicate himself to building better schools for Los Angeles, envisions opening an elementary school for 500 students using the MicroSociety curriculum, in which the older students would spend part of each day playing roles in an imaginary world of laborers, politicians and bankers.

But right now, Biniaz has a banking problem of the real-world kind.

He needs several million dollars to buy the former offices of the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. and bring the building up to rigorous state standards for schools.

Because of the way California's charter school law is written, Biniaz can count on no help from the state to make the project work, so he has come up with a novel proposal.

He is asking the Los Angeles Unified School District to guarantee that it will buy the building once he has completed its renovation. Westlake Charter would then lease it back for a nominal price.

With that commitment, Biniaz believes, he will have no trouble obtaining a conventional bank loan.

School district officials are looking over the idea with wary interest, but many details have to be worked out before there is a deal.

If Biniaz succeeds, he would be among those pioneering business-savvy solutions to the most vexing obstacle in the way of the charter reform movement.

Charter schools, which are growing in number nationwide, are seen as a way to expand choices available to parents and improve student performance through innovative programs like MicroSociety. Charters use public money but are free to follow their own educational inspiration, like private schools.

The problem is that California's charter school law makes no provision for the cost of buying or building a facility.

That poses little difficulty for the more common type of charter school, which evolves from an existing public school whose staff and parents want to make their own decisions in such critical areas as hiring, labor negotiations and curriculum. But it can present a formidable obstacle to charters that spring from the dreams of a community group, an educational innovator or an entrepreneur.

Philanthropy Often Provides Key Support

To solve this problem, promoters of charter schools most often appeal to philanthropy.

A group of Los Angeles teachers who founded the Accelerated Charter, L.A.'s oldest, found a permanent home in South Los Angeles when clothing designer Carole Little donated her company's former headquarters and warehouse.

Last week, a community group opened Camino Nuevo Charter in a refurbished Westlake-area mini-mall with the help of dozens of corporate and individual sponsors, several of them giving more than $100,000.

A third new charter, the Watts Learning Center, hasn't been as fortunate.

Even with start-up support from the Walton Family Foundation, the founders have struggled to come up with a home. The school's elementary-age children currently share leased quarters with a continuation high school on a former Catholic school campus.

The problem of developing facilities for charter schools extends nationwide.

"That is absolutely the biggest obstacle to any charter operator," said Mary Kayne Heinze, director of media relations for the Center for Education Reform, which tracks the charter movement.

Only a few of the 37 states that have charter school laws have provided for start-up costs, according to a report published by the center.

Arizona and Minnesota laws provide extra money for leases, and Florida builds capital cost into its per-pupil contribution to charter schools, the report said.

In California, attempts to establish capital provisions have so far failed, said Eric Premack, who publishes a newsletter on the state's charter schools.

Unsuccessful in the Legislature, backers of charter school reform are now trying the initiative process. They failed in March when voters rejected a measure to lower the threshold for school construction bonds from two-thirds to a majority. It contained a clause that would have required school districts to provide charter schools with facilities comparable to those of regular schools.

They are trying again in November with Proposition 39, which has similar language and would lower the bond vote requirement to 55%.

"If that passes, there would be more of an entitlement," Premack said. "Right now it is a tin-cup-in-hand relationship. Those districts that are willing to throw some coins in the tin cup are helpful, but they are the exception rather than the norm."

Premack said a district's willingness to help charter applicants depends on whether its enrollment is growing or declining.

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