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Senator seeks charter school building action

Sen. Kathy Saltzman of Woodbury on Tuesday announces that her subcommittee will look into a loophole in Minnesota law that bans charter schools from owning buildings. With her is Eugene Piccolo, Minnesota Association of Charter Schools executive director, who said his group is open to more accountability. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- 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.

"The revised charter school law did a great job addressing the issue of charter school management," said Dan McKeon, director at TrekNorth Junior and Senior High School, a public charter school in Bemidji. "It ensures the responsible use of public dollars. In my opinion, this isn't a charter school issue."

McKeon stated that before the charter school law was revised, written in a way in which charter schools could start a nonprofit foundation that could fund the building or the renovation of building and lease it back to the charter school.

"People were calling this a loophole. The revised law changed this," McKeon said. "Anytime public tax dollars are used there is a potential someone will misuse them. Is that limited to charter schools? Absolutely not."

The following is a list of Bemidji charter schools, their enrollment, grades served and the authorizer organization:

- Schoolcraft Learning Community, 160, K-8, Minnesota Department of Education.

- TrekNorth High School, 151, 9-12, Volunteers of America.

- Voyageurs Expeditionary High School, 80, 9-12, Audubon Center of the Northwoods.

Pioneer reporter Anne Williams contributed to this report.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.