Lawmaker: Time to roll back special break for Utah charter schools
Education • He says 2005 law was sponsored and promoted by lawmakers for their own financial gain.
Published: February 17, 2014 08:27PM
Updated: February 18, 2014 02:23PM
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Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan, in the Utah House of Representatives.

Draper • State Rep. Rich Cunningham is trying to roll back special treatment the state has given to charter schools for nearly a decade that he says has resulted in schools popping up in ill-advised areas and causing clashes with neighbors and endangering students.

But charter school officials say there’s nothing wrong with the law and Cunningham is doing the bidding of a wealthy developer, upset with a school that was built next to one of his industrial parks.

At issue is a 2005 law passed by the Legislature that gives charter schools free rein to locate on land zoned for any purpose — residential, commercial or industrial — and severely limits a city’s ability to regulate the schools.

Cunningham said the 2005 law helped a trio of lawmakers with financial interests in building charter schools who used their position in the Legislature to grease the process for their financial gain. The legislators were former Reps. Mike Morley and James Ferrin and Sen. Sheldon Killpack.

“It’s self-serving legislators who ran unfair bills to benefit the business they’re involved in,” said Cunningham, R-South Jordan.

Now Cunningham wants to make charters more accountable to the cities, saying there has been a string of problems across the state with the siting of charter schools.

The schools ran into problems locating in residential areas. There were concerns about nearby canals and commercial developments and little consideration given to traffic patterns. One school, Cunningham said, was built next to a sewage-treatment plant.

But the main focus of Cunningham’s frustration is the American Preparatory Academy in Draper.

John Price, a commercial developer and former U.S. ambassador, said the school popped up behind a commercial development in Draper. It was land-locked, without roadways, water, power or sewer lines.

Price said the school — without permission — installed gates in his fences in order to access the roadway. School officials demanded access to roads and utilities, which Price eventually gave them. They dug a trench across Price’s land to install a new sewer line, causing traffic problems.

And there continues to be traffic problems as parents try to drop their children off at school in a busy commercial area. Some of the tenants in the commercial development, Price said, have threatened to move out.

“It seems these [things] should’ve been thought about before construction. But because they don’t have to go to the city for approvals, the city didn’t get into this,” Price said. “What we went through for over a year is just uncalled for and I’ve not gone through this in 50 years of business.”

But Brad Findlay, chairman of the board of directors for American Preparatory Academy, said the problem isn’t the statute.

“The problem here is a wealthy, influential developer who refuses to allow a public school to access a public road because of a two-foot protection strip that he claims to own,” Findlay said.

Findlay said Price claims to own the two-foot strip of land between the school’s parking lot and the public street, although it’s not on the school’s survey. The schools tried to negotiate with Price and said he signed an agreement to give them access. Based on the agreement, the state paid to widen the road, Findlay said. But Price still refuses to allow access, forcing parents to use other roads, which Findlay said is creating “horrible traffic and is also putting people and children at risk.”

Today, the asphalt ends at a muddy strip of dirt and a chained gate, just an arm’s reach from the public road.

American Preparatory Academy could try to exercise eminent domain on the strip and buy it from Price, but the school thought it had the issue resolved.

“I think that it’s inappropriate for a legislator to bring forth legislation that will impact every school in the whole state based on one isolated experience,” Findlay said, “especially when he hasn’t even taken the time to hear both sides of the story.”

Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, has his doubts.

“This bill would have a tremendous negative impact on all schools and particularly charter schools in their ability to be built,” Bleak said. “This is a significant change that could largely impact and or stop the building of charter schools.”

But Jodi Hoffman, of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said cities have zoning so they can plan their communities and coordinate growth. In many cities — but not all — public schools do have to comply with zoning conditions. Since 2005, however, charters have been largely exempt from those restrictions.

The Legislature made the change in 2005, passing a bill sponsored by Ferrin, who was involved in the financing of charter schools. Hoffman said lawmakers at the time feared that communities wouldn’t want to let charter schools build in their neighborhoods. But she said that since then, the experience with charters has been “overwhelmingly positive” and the law may no longer be needed.

A House committee didn’t act on Cunningham’s proposal Friday, instead encouraging the lawmaker to try to work out a compromise with the charter schools and come back to the committee.

Cunningham said in an interview that it is a growing issue unique to a small number of charter schools that are trying to cut costs and cut corners to increase profits.

“We want charter schools. We need charter schools. They’re a major part of the solution for education,” he said.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke