Public charter schools are made to be different. They create a unique school environment, develop different teaching methods, and allow parents and teachers to be innovative, advocates say.
But South Carolina's charter schools differ from other public schools in another way, a recent report contends: They lack the "facilities and amenities" needed to best educate their students.
The report was published Nov. 5 by the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, along with the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
It describes challenges public charter schools face in obtaining equitable access to facilities and funding for them.
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"It definitely is a problem," S.C. Public Charter School District superintendent Wayne Brazell said. "We get no facility funding, nor do we get the ability to sell bonds ... or do anything else to raise funds for facilities."
Three charter schools currently operate in Beaufort and Jasper counties, and a fourth is set to open next fall. None have their own permanent building.
Charter schools receive funding based on enrollment from local, state and federal governments, like other public schools. However, charter schools must provide their own capital costs, unlike their public school counterparts.
As a result, charter schools end up spending part of their per-pupil operating costs -- money meant for students -- to pay costs like rent, utilities and maintenance, the report said.
Bridges Preparatory School board chairman Charlie Calvert says money used to keep the Beaufort school running could be used on technology or other programs instead.
Riverview Charter School director Alison Thomas agrees.
"(Charter schools) have to divert money intended for in the classroom to actually pay for the physical room," Thomas said.
When Riverview, which operates under a charter from the Beaufort County School District, opened in 2009, it leased an old school building on Burroughs Avenue in Beaufort from the district. It has since moved to the former Shell Point Elementary School in Port Royal, which it also rents from the district.
"When you think about how many funds are being used, you can't help but wonder what else could be done with that money," she said. "If all that money were channeled to operations, then think how much more you could do for students."
Riverview has eyed permanent sites but has faced fundraising hurdles.
Developer Bob Turner offered to buy a parcel adjacent to his Habersham development from the school district, donate it to Riverview and help the school develop the property. However, the Board of Education rejected that proposal because officials at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort feared the site was within the approach and departure corridors of aircraft.
In 2011, the school board agreed to donate a 7-acre lot off Old Salem and Burton Hill roads to Riverview. However, negotiations fell through in the summer of 2012, Thomas said.
The study also found that many times charter schools don't have adequate space or amenities for students.
Bridges opened this fall and is renting space from the Beaufort Boys & Girls Club and the county-owned Charles Lind Brown Center. The buildings were built with children in mind, Calvert said, but the school would prefer a single campus.
Lowcountry Montessori School is set to open in Beaufort County next fall. Amy Horn said she and other organizers are working to find space, but the search has not been easy. However, Horn said the growing number of charter schools in the state -- currently 55 this year -- is putting pressure on legislators to tackle the problem.
"I think things are probably going to change as more and more charter schools have these issues and it sheds some light on the problems," she said.
Many believe that charter schools should have better access to underused or vacant schools and public buildings, said state charter school alliance director Mary Carmichael.
Beaufort County schools have worked with charters to consider space in the district, said facilities, planning and construction officer Robert Oetting, but the district currently does not have extra space.
He said he sees the benefits for both the charters and traditional schools in using facilities already paid for by taxpayers.
Royal Live Oaks Academy, a charter school in Hardeeville, has tried to work with the Jasper County School District to rent vacant district buildings, academy director Karen Wicks has said. However, the school district has not responded to inquires, she has said, so she assumes the district isn't interested.
Attempts to reach the Jasper school district Friday were unsuccessful.
Carmichael said she also has asked Gov. Nikki Haley to put $4 million into a revolving loan program next year that charter schools could use for renovations and new construction.
She said there is no easy fix, but the charter school alliance is looking to other states for ideas and are working with legislators.
"This is a problem across the nation, not just here in South Carolina, and facilities are the biggest hurdle that public charter schools face," Carmichael said. "But we have started to take those steps to address this."