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As charter schools expand in New Hampshire, the push is on to find more space

A school building in Northfield, New Hampshire
Grace McFadden
The former Union Sanborn School — and current Compass Classical Academy — building in Northfield.

When Compass Classical Academy first prepared to begin classes in 2015, it faced one big question: Where would the new charter school call home?

“When we got approved to open, we didn’t have a location yet," said Judy Tilton, head of school for Compass. "And my joke with parents was, ‘We’ll open in a circus tent if we have to.’ ”

Luckily for Compass and its students, they didn’t have to settle for a circus tent. School leaders were able to find an old parochial school building to hold classes. But eventually, a new challenge emerged: Space in that building grew too tight as Compass’s enrollment increased.

“We just ended the school year with approximately 150 [students]. We’ll be starting over at the new location with approximately 200,” Tilton said. “Here, we didn’t have a playground, and that’s huge.”

Many charter schools in New Hampshire have faced similar problems in recent years, as enrollment in charters continues to grow steadily and the limitations of their original start-up space might make expansion difficult. Many charters lease commercial real estate, which often lack things like traditional classrooms, a full service kitchen or gym space.

Compass Classical Academy ended up finding a new home: a former public school building in Northfield that it now owns. It was able to do so thanks in large part to a years-long effort in the New Hampshire State House to make it easier for charter schools to acquire real estate. That effort has allowed charters to put down more permanent roots and meet the growth in student enrollment. But it’s also raised concerns and complaints from some school districts that lawmakers are making it harder for local education leaders to make decisions that affect their districts.

The debate illustrates the tension that charter school policy continues to exert in state political and education circles.

Policy changes

A few policy changes have been paving the way for charters like Compass Classical Academy who are looking for real estate of their own. As early as 2018, lawmakers have tried to pass legislation requiring school districts to offer their unused space to charter schools.

Prior to 2018, charter schools in the early stages of existence were restricted from taking on long term debt for their buildings. Without long term debt, buying a building often means fronting millions of dollars, which many charter schools just don’t have – especially because they don’t get as much public funding and are ineligible for the pots of money public schools can use for their facilities. But lawmakers removed the barrier to long term debt in 2018.

A few years later in 2021, a law offering charters the right of first refusal on old public school buildings passed. That is, any districts with old buildings have to first offer them to charter schools if they decide to sell. This law is just one piece of a broader puzzle of charter schools and real estate in the state.

And this law took effect for the first time this year, when Compass tried to buy the old Union Sanborn Elementary School in Northfield.

The Union Sanborn School

The Union Sanborn School was one of three elementary schools in the Winnisquam Regional School District. But in March 2022, the district had decided to put the building up for sale because of declining enrollment and the costs of maintaining the school.

By the fall, the discussion about the building had heated up. Compass Classical Academy bid on the building in the summer, but for months, the bid sat seemingly without movement from the school board. Some complained that the school board was ignoring the bid. Others started a petition to push the sale through.

The Winnisquam School Board fielded questions about the sale in a September meeting. But they didn’t just hear from parents: they also got pressure from state lawmakers, like then-Sen. Bob Giuda, who said the board was violating state law.

“You people have forgotten that you are the servants, and you work for these people. As a senator I worked for 54,000 people and I’m accountable for them. This is not your school. This is their school,” Giuda told school board members.

Giuda and others were concerned about the 2021 law giving charter schools right of first refusal to any public school buildings being sold in the state.

Now, a law signed in August goes a step further than the 2021 legislation. It adds a timeline to the sale process, and it allows the Department of Education to appoint a mediator to resolve disagreements between charter schools and public districts on the fair price of a building.

This year’s legislation was in the works before the controversy around the sale of the school in Northfield started. In fact, it’s based on a proposed section of the 2021 bill that was originally cut out. But the situation with the Union Sanborn school seemed to energize legislators like Rep. Greg Hill, a Republican from Northfield.

“Our school district, our school board decided that because they didn’t have a timeline, they were under no obligation to acknowledge that the bid arrived.” Hill said in a state Senate Education Committee hearing in April this year.

For proponents, these legislative changes seem like a win-win: districts have an old school building that they’re responsible for taking care of even though it’s just collecting dust. Charter schools need long term facilities. The bill allows this very specific type of building to continue being used for its intended purpose.

These policy nudges drew support from Republicans who have been eager to expand school choice in New Hampshire. Several people — like Rep. Hill — have also framed it as the most efficient use of resources for a community.

“This was a way of taking surplus property and directing it to other public school children. The same children, I’ll point out, that the parents have already paid to build that school in many cases,” Hill said.

Concerns raised

But some say it’s not so simple and have raised concerns that state officials are getting too heavy handed in what should be a matter for local control. Barrett Christina, the head of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, said the original law telling districts to sell their buildings to charter schools takes autonomy away from the districts.

“Those decisions are best left locally to the local school district and the local voters of that community, without the state stepping in and telling local school districts what they have to do with their property and what they have to do with their buildings,” Christina said.

Christina also mentioned that some schools were closed for safety. While declining enrollment is to blame for some school districts reshuffling, other schools — such as Rochester’s Nancy Loud Elementary School — are shuttered because the school is unfit to have children inside and the school can’t foot the bill for repairs.

In the case of the Union Sanborn school, one offer made by the charter school was for $500,000 based on the repairs the school needed. A letter from Compass Classical justifying the price cited the need to repair all the flooring and a colony of bats on the third floor. When the school initially listed the building, they priced it at $4.2 million.

In the end, the district and Compass split the difference and the building was sold for $2.2 million. Under the new law, if they hadn’t been able to come to an agreement in 30 days, the dispute about price will be handled by an independent mediator appointed by the Commissioner of Education.

Some Democrats are wary of giving more power to the Department of Education, given Commissioner Frank Edelblut’s track record as an ally for some conservative leaning charter schools. That’s a red flag for Rep. Dave Luneau, a Democrat on the House Education Committee.

“The Commissioner of Education determines what the fair market value is, and can do that through hiring a private appraiser or something like that,” Luneau said. “But, it still falls up to the Commissioner of Education to do that.”

Luneau referred to the sale of a county courthouse in Ossipee to a charter school for a dollar. The sale stirred controversy in the county — including causing a woman to be escorted out of a public meeting by a sheriff’s deputy — in part because the school that bought the courthouse uses the Hillsdale curriculum, an education model which has attracted national attention for its growing use and conservative leaning.

“We’ve got this sweetheart $1 deal for selling a publicly owned building — not a school building, a historic courthouse — to a Hillsdale charter for $1,” Luneau said. “So if we don’t think we’re going to see more of that, we’ve already got the example right here.”

Asked about the law earlier this summer, Edelblut said he hadn’t followed it closely. But, he wasn’t sure how much his agency would get pulled in.

“What I find is that oftentimes, our school systems are quite capable of solving problems, so I’m not sure if any disputes would come or not,” Edelblut said.

Moving forward

Eventually, Compass Classical Academy did get the greenlight to move into the Northfield elementary school. Social media posts show parents and kids moving boxes into the old building. They’re starting their first year there now.

The districts where this law will come into play might look something like Winnisquam: the number of students in the district’s public schools had been slowly declining for several years. But, the local charter school had been gaining momentum. This mirrors state trends: public school enrollment has dropped as charter schools pop up around the state.

It’s unclear exactly how many school buildings could be subject to this new process. As of January 2022, the most recent data available, the state said there were at least seven unused school buildings.

A few other large districts — among them Manchester, Concord, and Rochester — are also exploring closures, either for safety or enrollment reasons. If they decide to sell those buildings, they’ll be offered to charter schools first.

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