Mayor Karl Dean puts KIPP charter ahead of other schools for repairs; KIPP to get $10 million while others wait

ByJaime Sarrio

It took ripping away the red tape, a hefty sum of money and a powerful politician, but this year the decaying, partially vacant school building leased by KIPP Academy is getting a renovation.

Highland Heights, the historic East Nashville building that has housed KIPP Academy since 2005, is budgeted to get a $10 million upgrade courtesy of a high-profile champion: Mayor Karl Dean. Dean asked the school district to turn the building over to the city, allowing him to fund upgrades.

KIPP’s special treatment is irritating some supporters of traditional public schools who argue that other aging buildings, such as Hume-Fogg High School, have been waiting in line for years for money to modernize.

But Dean says he would like to expand capital support for successful charters, and he hopes KIPP’s upgraded building will benefit the gentrifying community and send a message nationally that Nashville is a city willing to aid charter schools with buildings. He joins a small movement of other cities and states trying harder to help charters find a home.

“Until recent years, I don’t think we were supportive enough of public charter schools,” Dean said. “And I think going forward we’re going to have to work with the Board of Education to figure out how we’re going to meet the property need and capital needs of public charter schools, too.”

Charter schools are funded with taxpayer money but run by independent boards. They can be closed if they do not meet state and local guidelines, as was demonstrated this year when the school district shuttered Nashville Global Academy for poor financial management.

Affordable space is rare

Finding affordable space is a huge barrier for charter schools across the country. No states give charter schools equal access to facilities, said Debbie Veney Robinson, vice president of communications for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. But there are some signals that could change.

New York and Denver allow charters to share buildings with traditional public schools. New Orleans allows charters to use school buildings rent-free. Georgia this year passed a law requiring districts to make vacant and unused facilities available to charter schools, also at no charge.

California, Colorado and New Mexico are making strides toward giving charters the same access to public school buildings or low-interest loans for construction, Robinson said.

And in Nashville, several charters are located in formerly vacant buildings, including LEAD Academy, which leases the old Brookmeade Elementary building.

Highland Heights was not on Metro’s renovation list, which ranks schools by need, because it was not a permanent school site, district officials said. KIPP’s lease payments to the district covered only utilities and basic services.

This summer, Dean asked the school board to transfer the building to Metro government, which the board unanimously agreed to do provided it always be used for educational purposes.

Help Metro schools first

Erick Huth, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, takes issue with the way Dean went about funding KIPP’s renovation and insists there are other schools in the same neighborhood that badly need repair.

“It’s in essence not a Metro school,” Huth said. “It’s being leased to KIPP. The only reason it was available was because Metro stopped using it because of its condition. If the facility doesn’t meet KIPP’s needs, KIPP has the opportunity to seek another facility on the open market — that’s what other charter schools have done.”

This year, the city budgeted $40 million for school renovations and upgrades, not including the plans for KIPP. During his tenure, the mayor has set aside about $100 million for capital spending related to schools.

Parents at other aging schools have mixed feelings about the renovation. It’s great KIPP is getting help, they say, but meanwhile the leaky roof at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet has damaged classrooms, there’s not a functional gym, and students eat lunch in the hallways because there isn’t enough room in the cafeteria.

“The families of our students constantly demonstrate their commitment to support the school financially and otherwise, but the school system should pay for needed maintenance and repairs,” said Jane Crenshaw, parent of a senior. “It is very important that we do not lose sight of existing needs like those at our school.”

Dean and local council members say KIPP will play an important role in revitalizing the surrounding community, west of Gallatin Avenue near Cleveland Street and Dickerson Pike.

Nearby residents will be asked to weigh in on uses for vacant parts of the building. Ideas include a space for community meetings and a park on school grounds.

The renovations also would leave room for KIPP to expand beyond its 250 students, and possibly beyond its grades 5-8 structure, something the school is considering in the future. The school is popular with parents seeking different options for their children and has a track record of academic results.

With the city renovating the building, the school won’t have to spend time and money dealing with facility problems, freeing up both to help students, said Laura Miguez-Howarth, KIPP dean of students.

“It gives us an amazing opportunity to provide more resources for our kids,” she said.