Charter school prompts debate
Hmong College Prep Academy has won St. Paul City Council and Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) approval for conduit financing, on a 4-3 margin Aug. 26. But elected officials warn that future requests for funding other charter school projects won’t be approved until a study can be completed.
Council members have long brought up the need to look at the cumulative impacts of charter schools on the city’s property tax base and impacts on the public school system. Parents in Midway have organized a group, Parents for St. Paul Schools, to raise similar issues. Charter schools provide education options but as they continue to pop up in St. Paul, properties are taken off of the tax rolls in some cases. Hmong College Prep Academy, which is located in Como neighborhood, found itself in the crosshairs as it sought funds for a needed expansion
Council members Amy Brendmoen, Rebecca Noecker, Dai Thao and Chris Tolbert voted for the financing; Mitra Jalali, Jane Prince and Nelsie Yang were against. But even supporters said the city needs to look at charter school expansions and conduit bond requests before there is another vote.
City officials have approved three such requests since 2012, in some cases taking properties off of the property tax rolls.
For Hmong Prep, approval means issuance of $36 million in conduit revenue bonds. The bonds are issued at no financial risk to the city. They are typically used by colleges, universities and charter schools. Another $7 million for the school’s expansion will come from the St. Paul Port Authority.
The project allows the school to build a new middle school, outdoor play area and a skyway over Brewster Street.
Enrollment in St. Paul Public Schools is an issue several council members cited. Another is the level of public access to a soccer dome at the school.
During debate Aug. 26, some council members questioned why Hmong Prep continues to take on students, to an enrollment of 2,350. Prince said the school’s growth sounded like “it’s kind of out of control.”
Opponents to the conduit financing had other points. Yang led the charge in questioning school officials. A vocal supporter of the St. Paul Public Schools and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, Yang questioned Hmong Prep Superintendent Christianna Hang about her salary and teacher salaries.
For Jalali, a major concern is that of having charter schools move into her Fourth Ward. Schools often look to take over vacant commercial and industrial sites, taking those properties out of contention for jobs creation and off of the tax rolls. One suggestion Jalali made is a zoning study for schools. While the city has zoning requirements for colleges and universities, there are no such requirements for K-12 public schools, other than site studies.
Thao defended the school and its work with Hmong students. He questioned whether racial issues were involved in some council members’ questioning.
In the August Monitor, on page 12 due to a typographical error, the amount for funding for Twin Cities German Immersion School project was incorrectly stated. The correct amount is $5,000. We apologize for the error.