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The bill addresses questionable uses of state money and allows charter schools to own buildings. But the state's charter school association opposes some parts of the bill.

Charter school reform advances in Senate

Kathy Saltzman

Kathy Saltzman

Charter school reform legislation is advancing at the state Capitol.

A bill on Thursday passed the Senate education finance committee that creates a way for charter schools to own their own buildings. But the association that represents Minnesota charter schools opposes some parts of the bill.

The issue of charter school buildings sprang onto the legislative agenda last year after the Star Tribune raised issues about how lease aid for charter schools was being used.

In the past, charter schools haven’t been allowed to own property. But building corporations that are affiliated with the schools have built buildings with the help of state lease aid. The paper reported that some charter schools have been financed with junk bonds that carry high borrowing costs. Lease aid, which is set at $1,200 per student, has risen significantly as more charter school buildings have been built.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, has introduced a bill that closes the “loophole” that building corporations used to build charter schools. Her bill makes buildings paid for by state dollars a “public asset,” Saltzman said.

The bill also creates programs that give charter schools access to lower-cost financing to do construction.

Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools (MACS), said the bill creates a framework for charter schools owning their buildings. But he opposes some parts of the bill.

“It’s not a perfect bill at this point. We’re still working with legislators to try to improve it,” Piccolo said.

One concern, Piccolo said, is that the proposal eliminates funding starting in 2013 for start-up costs like buying computers for a school. MACS is also concerned about criteria for showing academic performance. Piccolo said the criteria are too narrow given the diverse types of charter schools that exist in Minnesota.

Rep. Linda Slocum, DFL-Richfield, is sponsoring companion legislation.

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