By Association President Howard Stephenson:

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Utah’s charter school law.  Charter schools enrolled more than 50,786 students in the 2012-13 school year, or about 8.5% of Utah’s public school students.  Charter enrollments are expected to grow another 6,000 students in the coming school year.
As the senate sponsor of that legislation, I was particularly pleased to hear the report of PhD candidate Michael Martineau, Department of Economics at the University of Utah, which showed that the presence of charter schools actually improves neighboring Utah district schools. The study found that public schools within 10 miles of one or more charter schools saw significant boosts in their test scores in math, science, and language arts.

That’s not the only benefit of Utah’s charter schools.  The growth of charter schools has absorbed half of the student growth in the Beehive state, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions in long-term bonding for school buildings.  But the real heroes in reducing borrowing costs for taxpayers are not the charter schools themselves, but the businesses who risk their own capital to build the school buildings and then lease them to the charter schools.  Unlike construction companies which build district schools and walk away with their profits when the schools open, charter development companies carry all the risk for years, until the charters prove their business model and qualify for financing to purchase the buildings from the developers.  If a charter school was to fail financially and be closed, only the development companies owning the buildings would suffer financial loss.

The difference in cost per student for new district school buildings is estimated to be as much as 50% higher than charter school buildings.  As I have met with legislators and education leaders across the nation, I have never heard someone mention that Utah spends less per student than any other state.  But I have often heard comments about how beautiful our school buildings are.

Fortunately there are a few Utah school boards that have utilized lower cost tilt-up construction and ground source heating and cooling such as Washington and Iron.   Tooele has also emphasized lower cost features.   However, Utah taxpayers have increasingly become aware of the fact that too many local school boards continue to spend tax dollars for unnecessary excesses on new school buildings; excesses which have no bearing on student achievement.  When visitors see Wasatch High School in Heber they are stunned at its opulence.  Canyons district is just completing a new middle school and a new high school in Draper.  Both buildings have stunning architecture.

The new Crescent View Middle School at 1300 East and 13200 South features exterior overhangs, angled walls, and multiple surface structures which leave observers questioning how a school board could approve such excesses.  This questionable use of resources is made even more striking when visitors look across the street at the Summit Academy Charter Middle School with its simple but attractive architecture.

The new Crescent View Middle School in Draper, Utah

Recent charter school building costs have been in the range of $100 to $115 per square foot while some school boards have been spending in the neighborhood of $150 per square foot.   Most charter schools cut building costs additionally by having fewer square feet per student.

Some members of the legislature and business leaders are currently looking at ways to rein in local school boards who spend lavishly on school buildings.

They better act quickly because the Jordan School Board is currently considering $930 million in bonds to pay for new buildings – more than twice as large as any school bond in Utah history.  Your Taxpayers Association has estimated that if Jordan School District continues to build lavish buildings which are shut down for one-third of the year, local school property taxes will double over the next 15 years.

Is it time for a dose of reality?