July 16 — 4:36 pm, 2010

Overhaul or cosmetic makeover?

With $3 million in privately donated funds at its disposal, Mastery Charter hoped to dramatically upgrade the facilities in each of its three Renaissance Schools before the start of the new school year.

But with some of the Renaissance School buildings needing major overhauls in order to address decades of neglect, even Mastery’s $1 million per school might not be enough to create the dramatic new beginnings that have been promised to students and parents.

And with only six weeks until the start of school, the District and its four Renaissance providers, which will convert seven District schools to charters in September, are still negotiating contractual details. So far, there are few firm answers to the most important questions about when and how the most challenging facilities issues at the Renaissance schools will be addressed.

Despite the confusion and the rapidly tightening timeline, Mastery CEO Scott Gordon is adamant that Harrity, Mann, and Smedley Elementary Schools will feel different in September.

“We will get this job done. We’ll find a way,” said Gordon. “We made a commitment to parents that we will improve all of those schools to the tune of about $1 million [each.] If we have to work all night long, those buildings will feel fresh and bright and clean when kids walk in [on the first day of school].”

The District, for its part, says that it wants to accommodate the Renaissance providers and make sure the schools have a “fresh” feel when they open. But because of budget constraints and fairness concerns, officials say that major renovations will only take place if they were already on the maintenance schedule.

As a result, it seems increasingly likely that most of the work done this summer will be cosmetic – fresh paint, improved lighting, buffed floors – even though many of the buildings have severe infrastructure needs.

At Smedley Elementary School in Frankford, for example, there is a hole in the ceiling of the school’s cafeteria, the result of an untended roof leak. The building, which was erected in 1927, also has a severely outdated electrical system and lacks the capacity to support Mastery’s intended installation of central air conditioning and new computer labs.

“We would really hope that [the renovations at Smedley] are not just a cosmetic makeover,” said Ninette Cooper, chair of the Smedley School Advisory Council (SAC). “You can paint something, but if the paint is going to peel because there is a leak behind it, the kids are going to feel slighted again.”

This spring, the District asked Mastery – along with ASPIRA, Universal Companies, and Young Scholars Charter School – to submit a list of requested repairs and renovations for each school they would be managing.

According to Mastery’s Chief Operating Officer Joe Ferguson, his team requested that the District deal with all outstanding work orders for things like shattered windows and dislodged floor tiles and fix structural problems like the leaking ceiling and the electrical capacity.

Doing all of the work would not be cheap.

“The work order stuff, you’re talking probably tens of thousands of dollars [at each school],” said Ferguson. “But the electrical capacity issue at Smedley, that would be about a half-million dollar job.”  

As recently as late June, Mastery officials still held out hope that the District would address the bulk of their facilities requests at its own expense.

In early July, however, the District made clear that it would not be paying for large-scale renovations this summer. 

“At [Renaissance] schools where there are requests to do a major capital project, if in our normal course of maintenance it’s not on our schedule, we’re not going to be doing that,” said Thomas Darden, the District’s deputy for process improvement and compliance.

But, he added, the District intends to help repaint, relight, and retile some of the Renaissance schools. “We’ll need to provide some support to these buildings over and above what we might have normally done,” he explained.

Each of the providers has indicated that it is prepared to spend its own money to contribute to facilities upgrades.

During the Renaissance selection process, for example, Universal Companies repeatedly said that it intended to invest at least $500,000 into the schools it will manage.

ASPIRA, which has spent over $12 million to acquire and renovate its two existing charter school buildings, was not yet able to say how much it expected to invest in Stetson.

Before anything definitive can be decided, said Executive Director Alfredo Calderon, “we want to see what the District is going to do.”

But, he added, “We’re going to be spending money…we want to put as much money as possible into direct operations, instruction, books and materials,”

Like Mastery, ASPIRA is seeking to raise private capital to make that possible. If they are unable to do so, said Calderon, they will pull the funds from ASPIRA’s operating budget. 

However the negotiations play out, the Renaissance providers will have a different arrangement than Mastery worked out with the District for its three existing “turnaround” schools – Shoemaker, Pickett, and Thomas. Mastery took them over starting in 2006.

At those schools, each of which began as a middle school, Mastery had autonomy from the outset and was able to directly oversee major redesigns that included significant infrastructure upgrades. 

“Pickett was built in 1968, which wasn’t a good year for buildings” said Gordon. “It took a lot of work to figure out how to make it functional and not feel like a prison.”

Mastery hired renowned architectural firm Blackney Hayes to redesign the facility. “Because it was our project, we did it hands-on,” he said.

Mastery also provides the maintenance and upkeep at all three schools.

“[The arrangement] has worked out very well from everyone’s perspective,” said Gordon. “We’re here where the problems are, and we have a high incentive to make sure the building is well maintained. From the District’s point of view, there is no expense, just oversight.”

But during the first year of the Renaissance initiative, Mastery will not have that autonomy. At all of the Renaissance schools, the District will remain responsible for all facilities issues, from infrastructure and the “outer envelope” of the buildings to cleaning and day-to-day maintenance.

Because of contractual issues, said Darden, the District’s building engineers, custodians, and food service workers will be remain in place at the Renaissance schools for one year. “We have a regional structure for managing those facilities now, and they’ll still be managed the same way,” said Darden. “Regional supervisors will be the first line of contact [for work order repairs that can’t be handled by building engineers.]”

After the first year, the District and the Renaissance providers will renegotiate their license agreements, which include the building lease, facilities management, and other supplemental educational materials. The providers will have the option then to either retain the District to provide those services or to contract them out. Darden said the District is “agnostic” about the providers’ eventual decision.

Although Mastery’s ability to raise private money for facilities upgrades at its Renaissance schools has been largely based on donors’ enthusiastic response to its previous turnaround efforts, it is increasingly clear that the current process is a trip into uncharted territory.

When Harrity, Mann, and Smedley open their doors on September 1, said Gordon, “it will be comparable [to Mastery’s previous efforts] in the sense that students and families will walk in and see that this doesn’t feel like the old school, it feels brighter and more open and fresh and clean. We’re going to get that impact.”

But when and how the District and the Renaissance providers ultimately address the deeper facilities issues in the seven schools – five of which were built at least 70 years ago – is still up in the air.

The lack of clarity is not ideal, but it won’t stand in the way of a turnaround, promised Gordon.

“Our motto is ‘Excellence, no excuses,’ he said. “This will not stop us, because we have a job to do come September.” 

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