Down to the wire for one charter school

I am not a fan of sports, despite the best efforts of my father, my friends, and my work colleagues; nor am I a watcher of House of Cards, despite a love of deep and twisty TV generally; nor have I gotten into the reality TV show genre, despite watching hours of commercials for them all over the years.

But, thanks to my work here at the Fordham Institute, I have come upon a real life story that has elements of all these genres and just in time for March Madness it has come down to the wire.

Note: I am indebted to journalists Mark Reiter and Ignazio Messina of the Toledo Blade for diligently following this story and allowing me to vicariously “ride along”.

Horizon Science Academy in Toledo is a K-8 charter school in the downtown area that has been in business since 2011. It has 270 students enrolled this school year and received a D for performance index and an A for overall value-add last year (check out their full report card here). In late 2013, the operators were looking to expand and found a ready-built new home – the building currently occupied by the Toledo area YMCA (gym, services, offices). A deal was struck between the two parties, contracts signed, and then attention turned toward obtaining the required special use permit to allow a school to operate in the building.

The first part of that process required approval from the Toledo Plan Commission, an agency which “seeks to create a community with a high quality of life and access to economic opportunity for all of our residents” by providing “effective guidance on land use decisions” to city government.

That’s when things started to go sideways.

The first attempt at obtaining approval for the variance/use permit in January 2014 was tabled by the Plan Commission due to a request from Toledo Public Schools. TPS reported that they had applied for a Head Start grant from the federal government and might be interested in the YMCA building as a location for a new program.

The tabling occurred despite the fact that the Y had 1) attempted to sell/move at least twice before without finding a buyer, 2) signed a contract with Horizon’s operator, 3) had received an agreement to move out in stages as they found space, and 4) were receiving terms far more generous than even previous listings.

A neighborhood group called United North (motto: “Working Together to make ONE Village a Community of Choice”) took advantage of the delay to drum up support for Toledo Public Schools’ possible bid and, more directly, against Horizon’s actual bid. This despite the fact that TPS’ “bid” is dependent on winning a federal grant and is at least $500,000 lower than the already signed deal between Horizon and the Y.

United North held a public meeting in early February on this whole thing, at which it seems the only folks interested in delaying the permit were those who called the meeting.

 

When the next Plan Commission meeting took place the following week, the situation was the same and the Commission voted to approve the variance and to move the process along to the next stage.

Step two was a review of the variance by City Council’s planning and zoning committee, which apparently went without a hitch in mid-March because it was on the full council’s agenda for a vote last night. But that vote turned into a nail-biter worthy of the Final Four. Amidst all the other wrangling over budget matters between council members, and between council and their feisty new mayor, deep in the agenda was the Horizon/YMCA variance vote. The tribe spoke…

And it was a tie! Can you believe it folks?!

The new mayor – D. Michael Collins – declined to vote on the spot to break the tie. He has two weeks in which to cast his deciding vote. And even if the vote goes Horizon’s way note that Horizon’s operator has actually agreed to walk away from the deal if TPS’ grant comes through, despite the signed contracts.

Fascinating.

So I am on pins and needles as much as any basketball fan or any Survivor fan or any Homeland binge-watcher at the end of a season. Which is OK for me, I suppose. But how about the kids at Horizon? The families? The teachers? The YMCA administrators and staff?

OK. Maybe I should just stick to scripted TV.

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