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Charter schools not required to weather the storm

In the wake of the hurricanes that pounded the Southeast last fall, many local public school facilities served as emergency shelters. In Florida, however, only three of the state’s 654 charter schools could be used because the majority were not built to the state’s education facility requirements.

Florida’s charter schools are not required to comply with Florida Building Code requirements for educational facilities, although the Florida state legislature passed a controversial measure last June requiring districts to share funding with charters for capital projects.

District-owned public schools account for 97 percent of statewide hurricane shelter space, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Charting different standards

As the demand for charter schools stays strong, construction standards—particularly those relating to emergency shelters—continue to be a point of debate nationwide.

Charters have different—and less demanding—functional requirements for facilities, says Alex Donahue, deputy director for policy and research for the 21st Century School Fund, an organization of K12 public school facilities leaders.

The lesser requirements exist due to differences in expected operational life of the schools, characteristics of the student populations and the programs the schools plan to offer. And not all public schools qualify as shelters. Only so many locations can be supported in an emergency, with community leaders often deciding what spots offer the most effective services.

Also, requiring every charter school to meet those standards may not be practical.

Money matters

“Since there’s not enough money to go around now, I certainly would not want to see charter schools be required to be built to be emergency shelters,” says Bob Gorrell, executive director of the Maryland Public School Construction Program, and former president of the National Council on School Facilities.

If a charter school is to be built in a location that would benefit the community, then it makes sense for it to be constructed to emergency shelter standards, says Gorrell. Otherwise, it drains funding away from education, where financial support to maintain buildings is already severely lacking.

“Being an emergency shelter is not an educational function, it’s a community or state one,” he says. “The state or the community needs to fully fund them so that we’re not harming the educational learning environment.”

Charters should be encouraged to operate within existing educational facilities, Gorrell says. “There are advantages to a charter leasing space from a traditional school, which can be a win-win because the charter gets a space and the district gets money back that they can use to keep up facilities.”