October 18, 2010 Higher Learning Academy opened in one of the toughest areas of Sacramento in fall 2007. It was a small charter school with a big vision to bring the rigorous Core Knowledge education program to historically underperforming students in North Sacramento and Del Paso Heights.
The school initially opened in a small, dilapidated church. The teachers used five small Sunday school rooms to teach 50 students in grades K-3. In 2008-09, school leaders negotiated a lease for a larger facility that, while also dilapidated, had formerly been a hospital. Each room had a leaky but mostly functional restroom and an actual, though originally rat infested, cafeteria. When the winter rains came, the roof of the building leaked into the classrooms, and issues of mold and mildew rose with the water. Communication and remediation on these and related issues with the landlord was difficult at best and nonexistent for the most part. The building owners were unwilling to make these and other desperately needed improvements to the facility.
School leaders needed another plan. They were still growing and barely qualified for a district facility under Proposition 39. When Higher Learning Academy leaders asked the school district for facilities, Twin Rivers Unified granted them the humble Plover Street campus -- one of the oldest school sites in the district -- under a Facilities Use Agreement, while simultaneously denying any Prop. 39 obligation. One year later, the student enrollment had doubled at Higher Learning Academy. Leaders behind Higher Learning Academy submitted a letter to the district before the November 1 deadline, requesting changes to their lease agreement and a long term lease at the Plover Street site.
Three obstacles hampered Higher Learning Academy's Prop. 39 request. First, the school's charter had language that the district interpreted as prohibiting them from applying for Proposition 39. The school was asking for a multi year lease, but didn't seem to be in a good position to get it. Second, the district was newly formed through a contentious unification process and was still in the process of establishing new policies and procedures, including a new Master Plan for district facilities. District staff was not sure how to respond to the request for facilities from the charter school. Finally, to complicate the issue, during public comment regarding district facilities planning when community members learned of plans to close and consolidate traditional public schools, angry parents spoke out at late-night school board meetings, making district staff and board members nervous.
Despite these challenges, Higher Learning Academy pressed forward. When the district failed to respond to their initial letter, they worked with the Association to educate the district about state law and the Proposition 39 process. Soon, they received a response from the district: Twin Rivers was offering the site at a better rate, but refused to acknowledge Higher Learning Academy's right to use Proposition 39 as a framework for negotiating facilities, because of the language in the school's charter.
Higher Learning and Twin Rivers Unified continued to exchange letters. Each time the district refused to acknowledge Proposition 39. But they were still meeting most the timelines and following the procedure laid out in Prop. 39. Finally, by the spring of 2010, the Facility Use Agreements were drafted, and to their delight, Higher Learning Academy was granted a multiyear agreement for the Plover Street campus. There were some last minute moments of drama in proposed changes in fiscal terms, but by July the multiyear Facilities Use Agreements with agreed upon terms was signed by both the district and the school.
The charter school's community breathed a sigh of relief. They were free to focus on providing an excellent educational program to families in North Sacramento instead of worrying about the facility. Higher Learning's charter would be up for renewal in two years, along with the Facility Use Agreement. In the meantime, they could focus on delivering high academic results for kids.