JENNINGS WANTS NEW TRY ON CHARTER FINANCING

But those rejecting $42M plan say only development merits were considered

JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST STAFF WRITER
Section: Capital Region,  Page: B1

Date: Wednesday, February 23, 2011

ALBANY -- Mayor Jerry Jennings said Tuesday that he will "strongly" urge a charter school group to renew its request for up to $42 million in tax-free financing -- a bid rejected last week by a city economic development panel.


The news came just days after Jennings called on the four dissenting members of the Capital Resource Corporation to resign over their votes that scuttled the proposal and sharply divided the city's education community.


But city Treasurer Kathy Sheehan, the most high-profile member of the board to vote against the controversial request, said Tuesday that her vote had nothing to do with the heated debate over the merit of charter schools and everything to do with how she defines economic development, the CRC's core mission.


Another board member described feeling "extraordinary pressure" to approve the project and questioned what the chilling effect might be if members of a supposedly independent city board appointed by the Common Council were asked to quit for doing their job.


The Charter Facilities Finance Fund was asking for access to tax-free bonds to buy and refinance the building of an all girls' high school on Hackett Boulevard, which opened last year, and to finance the construction of two middle schools currently rising on Elk Street.


Both schools are backed by the Brighter Choice Foundation, the largest builder of charter schools in Albany, which in many ways has become ground zero for the debate over how the publicly funded but privately run schools impact public education.


Sheehan, however, said her vote centered on one relatively simple equation: that Albany already has too much classroom space between the city school district and its charter schools and that providing attractive financing to build more is not, in her view, economic development.


Those buildings, Sheehan said, are "ultimately directly funded by our property tax dollars."


"The CRC was being asked to do something to actually encourage the building of more classroom space," Sheehan said. "It was an incentive to build something that we already have an over-capacity of.


"I was protesting nothing," she said of the characterization of the board's 4-3 vote as a statement about charter schools generally. "Unfortunately, I think this has devolved into an argument about motivation. This isn't about motivation. I think it's a healthy debate about what we mean about economic development."


Board member Prairie Wells, who also voted against the project, said it would have been easier for her to simply say yes.


As political director for Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 2, Wells said union members in the industry are benefiting from the construction of the middle schools.


But she said the CRC's enabling legislation very clearly laid out what things the board should consider, including reducing unemployment, improving job opportunities, promoting job training and scientific research to attract new industries, and "lessening the burdens of government and acting in the public interest."


"I'm in a position that, politically, the best thing I could have done would have been to vote yes. But that was wrong. That would have been the wrong choice," Wells said. "This is the worst possible choice I could have made as far as my professional life is concerned, but I took an oath to the city of Albany and people of the state of New York."


Wells also noted that, in the case of the high school, the board was being asked to help refinance the construction of a school that was already open and operating even though the CRC had no involvement in the original project.


"There is no economic benefit to that except for the fees," she said. "Nobody could argue that with me."


Whether or not the new schools will actually create new jobs was a controversial issue.


The CFFF claimed that 101 people will ultimately work at both schools, but the City School District of Albany said that merely represents a shift of some of the more than 200 jobs it has shed in recent years partially as the result of the encroachment of charter schools.


"For my part, I don't think that they made a strong enough argument about community benefit to overcome what was lacking in job creation," Wells said. "We have a clear and direct series of guidelines that we should be considering under the statute, which I did, and it had nothing to do with charter schools."


There was also a matter of money.


The CRC stood to make an estimated $262,500 in fees for providing the CFFF access to $35 million in tax-free bonds -- and even more if the nonprofit used the full $42 million.


But that money would not have gone to the city's depleted general fund, a fact that Sheehan and others said has been overlooked in criticism of the vote.


The money would instead go to the coffers of the CRC, which could allow those funds to be used on programs that benefit the community. Jennings said it could have gone to fund youth programming cut in this year's budget.


"Why wouldn't we take that money, especially when I'm cutting back?" he said. "I don't know who wins here. What did we accomplish by this?"


The deal would also have generated an estimated $437,500 in mortgage taxes.


But board members said criticism so far has also ignored the fact that only $175,000 of that would have gone to the city, with the rest split between the county, state and Capital District Transportation Authority.


The CFFF, they note, also initially asked to be exempted from paying the mortgage tax altogether.


Christian Bender, executive director of the Brighter Choice Foundation, said his organization hasn't made any decisions on what it will do -- including whether it will sue the CRC.


Told that Jennings planned to ask them to try again, Bender said: "Giving the board a chance to do the right thing is definitely a good option."


Reach Jordan Carleo-Evangelist at 454-5445 or jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com.