Santa Fe South Charter School’s Chris Brewster is one of the most vocal critics of a $955 million bond proposal on the Nov. 8 election ballot for Oklahoma City Public Schools. Yet, a county board approved a bond this spring to fund buildings at the charter school where he is superintendent, documents show.
Records show the Oklahoma County Finance Authority approved a $19 million bond for Santa Fe South Schools on May 13. The funds were loaned to SFS Development, Inc., a nonprofit organization that owns most of the school’s buildings and leases them to the school.
Then, the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners gave the transaction its stamp of approval on June 6.
Two votes, by six people, a month apart.
The charter school bond didn’t need voters’ approval, unlike Oklahoma City schools’ ask, which under state law, requires 60% to pass – highlighting a major difference between traditional and charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated and are freed from most of the laws and regulations traditional school districts have to follow. They require an authorizer — such as a public school district or college or university — to operate.
Oklahoma City Public Schools is working to convince voters to approve its bond package, which includes proposals to fund renovations at nearly all the district’s facilities and includes a new Capitol Hill high school, a new middle school and a regional stadium.
And it’s up against dark money, too, such as mailers featuring a purple “tax monster” that went to every Oklahoma City resident with no indication of who paid for them.
To be sure, Oklahoma City schools’ ask is significantly larger than Santa Fe South. If approved, residents’ property tax would increase by about $6 a month, or $78 a year, on a home valued at $100,000, according to FOX25. School bonds are sold on the bond market to raise up-front capital for construction projects and are repaid with millage from property taxes.
Brewster said the finance authority bond is different because there is no levy; the charter will repay the bond with the state education funding the school receives for its students.
Both scenarios are funded by taxpayers’ investment.
Brewster argues that Oklahoma City schools’ bond should include all charter students in the area and should include a plan to improve academic achievement at the district.
“What we want to see is kids in Oklahoma City Public Schools’ area treated equally. These are kiddos whose parents chose to go to a public charter school and will be asked to pay taxes — as everybody else is — to support public schools, but their children would not benefit from this bond,” he said Monday.
Brewster and Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, who strongly supports the bond proposal, have traded jabs on Twitter.
IMHO The increase in mill levy and the amount are reasonable, IF…— Chris Brewster (@CbrewsterOKC) November 1, 2022
1. All OKC public kids were included. Nearly 10K OKC public charter kids are essentially omitted.
2. No comprehensive plan for improving academics has been forthcoming. (other than nice facilities will help…) https://t.co/93ljhUiQMk
Charter schools authorized by the district, which include Harding Independence Charter and John Rex Charter School, are in the bond. The district sponsored Santa Fe South until 2021.
Holt has defended the bond proposal from critics like Brewster and said if the bond fails because of their strategy, Oklahoma City Public Schools’ kids would be worse off and Santa Fe South’s kids would be no better off.
“All Oklahoma City kids should have some path to infrastructure if they’re in a public school. I just totally disagree with the idea that it has to be either or,” Holt said.
The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber supports the bond and has encouraged residents to vote yes.
Oklahoma City Public School Superintendent Sean McDaniel declined to comment.
There’s a reason charter schools rarely get bond funding: charter schools are, by design, more temporary.
“The theory of charters is: if they’re no good, they should fail. Bond issuers look at that differently,” said Mark Weber, a fellow at the National Education Policy Center and professor at Rutgers University.
Another major difference is in many cases, like with Santa Fe South, a private entity owns the charter school buildings.
“If this is going to be paid for by taxpayers, it ought to be owned by taxpayers,” Weber said. What hasn’t been studied enough, he said, is what happens when charters close and can’t pay their obligations.
Brewster started Santa Fe South in a church basement in 2001 and it has grown to nine schools and 3,800 students, the majority of whom are Hispanic. It’s the oldest and largest brick-and-mortar charter school in the state and its mission is to provide a better education to urban youth.
Charter schools like Santa Fe South have struggled to afford adequate buildings for their students. The Legislature in 2021 changed school funding with the Redbud School Funding Act, which directs a portion of medical marijuana revenue to low-property tax school districts, including charter schools, for improving school buildings.
Santa Fe South received $1.1 million for the 2021-22 school year, according to the state Education Department’s data.
The charter’s middle and high school locations are in the former Crossroads Mall and its other locations include a former armory and a former YMCA. The school paid the nonprofit SFS Development Inc. $4.8 million to lease the facilities in 2020-21, audit records show. Brewster is one of two board members overseeing the nonprofit, according to the nonprofit’s most recent federal tax forms.
The $19 million bond is being used to add classrooms to the high school, remodel one elementary school, some upgrades of athletic facilities and consolidating existing debt, Brewster said.
Voters within the Oklahoma City Public School District will have the option to support or oppose the bond on their ballot Tuesday. As a Moore resident, Brewster won’t be among them.