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$100m Nevada Facilities Fund a ‘watershed moment’ for charter schools, leaders say


April Corbin Girnus, Nevada Current
March 22, 2024

Nevada charter schools are clamoring to access the millions of dollars in financing now available to support capital projects, such as buying or expanding school buildings.

The Nevada Facilities Fund is a $100 million revolving loan fund setup by the State Infrastructure Bank to provide long-term, low-cost facility financing for charter schools that serve under-resourced communities. While it officially launched in October, the fund’s numerous partners held an event this week to celebrate the fund and highlight several charter schools expected to benefit from the fund.

Among them, Futuro Academy, a K-5 charter school in East Las Vegas that plans to purchase the space they currently lease. Futuro Executive Director Ignacio Prado said that, just as it typically makes more sense for an individual to buy their home instead of rent, schools have more long-term financial security if they own.

The Nevada Facilities Fund (NVFF) was seeded with $15 million in public funding approved by the State Infrastructure Bank in early 2022, $80 million from national donors through the Equitable Facilities Fund, and $5 million from local philanthropists. The fund will also use a $12 million U.S. Department of Education grant awarded to Opportunity 180.

Opportunity 180 and Equitable Facilities Fund will vet and assist charter schools in accessing the NVFF. Leaders with those organizations say charter schools will save an average of $150,000 annually.

That savings will translate into more money spent in the classroom, said Opportunity 180 CEO Jana Wilcox Lavin. Some charter schools spend up to a quarter of the base per-pupil dollars they receive from the state on facilities.

Prado said Futuro could use their savings to boost special education services, support teachers, or reduce class sizes.

Charter schools are not currently eligible for dedicated facilities funding, which are generated at the county level through property taxes and provided to traditional school districts. They also cannot use public bonds to fund new buildings the way traditional school districts typically do.

By 2028, NVFF plans to finance 10 projects that support 7,500 new charter school seats. Because the funds awarded are loans, they should return to NVFF to support more projects into perpetuity.

Only schools that serve historically underrepresented populations are eligible for funding. Wilcox Lavin says this means the funds will primarily be awarded to charter schools already operating in Nevada, rather than proposed charter schools looking to open.

Beacon Academy Executive Director Tambre Tondryk said the Southern Nevada charter school, which enrolls credit deficient students at high risk of not graduating, is working to access the NVFF to help purchase their existing Spring Valley campus, where the lease is up next summer, or buying a new facility and relocating.

The second option is appealing because, like many charter schools, Beacon’s Spring Valley campus retrofitted an existing space not originally intended to be a school. (In their case, it was previously an office building.) A new space could give them “the feel” of a more traditional school, which does matter to students and staff.

Tondryk said lenders turned Beacon away when they were working out a location for their east side campus because the school appears to be severely underperforming when compared to the traditional school metrics, such as graduation rates. In Nevada, Beacon is approved and evaluated by the State Public Charter School Authority under an alternative framework that acknowledges they serve a unique population.

“We couldn’t get lenders to understand,” she added, but the NVFF will “make this time around so much simpler.”

Another school working with NVFF on a project is Mariposa Language and Learning Academy. The Reno charter school, whose enrollment is almost entirely minority students, plans to purchase a new building that allows them to expand from their current 162 students to 300 students.

Praise for public-private partnerships

The Nevada Facilities Fund’s national partner, Equitable Facilities Fund, has provided more than $1 billion in capital to charter schools around the country since 2018. In 2022EFF launched the Texas Equitable Facilities Fund, which is funded solely through philanthropic dollars.

That makes the Nevada fund unique, says Equitable Facilities Fund CEO Anand Kesavan.

Gov. Joe Lombardo, who briefly attended the NVFF event, spoke to the crowd of school leaders, elected officials and donors about the potential of public-private partnerships, suggesting more should be considered. He said it was “unfair” it had taken this long to get to this point.

Proposals related to K-12 education and charter schools are typically “a battle” in the legislature, he added. Democrats have been hesitant about supporting rapid expansion of charter and private schools, arguing that the state should focus on improving its traditional public school districts.

The Republican governor, who took office roughly a year after the State Infrastructure Bank proposed setting aside $15 million for “charter school capital needs,” praised Nevada State Treasurer Zach Conine, a Democrat, for “going out on a limb” and pursuing the facilities fund.

On his end, Conine acknowledged the reservations some of his Democratic peers have regarding charter schools, but said that the facilities fund is “not a gamble” but simply “good business.”

“It might not be the most popular thing in some of the circles I run with,” he added, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

Prado of Futuro Academy says he believes the launch of the NVFF could serve as “a watershed moment” that marks a turning point where the state sees the benefits of helping charter schools, particularly those wanting to establish or expand in the urban core.

He added, “I think we’ll look back and see this was a catalyst we needed.”

Nevada’s State Infrastructure Bank was created by the Legislature in 2017 but remained unfunded until 2021. That year, lawmakers approved $75 million in general obligation bonds to the bank, to be used for charter schools, affordable housing projects, and other “social good” projects that otherwise could not secure funding.

The State Infrastructure Bank, which Conine chairs, is expected to receive an update on the Nevada Facilities Fund during its next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday.

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: info@nevadacurrent.com. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Nevada Current under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.