Building the Green Dream Campus: Environmental Charter Schools Creates a New Middle School in South L.A.

Photo credits: Ben Dolenc

By Dorothy Lee, Vice President of Client Management, EdTec Inc.
& Samantha Berman, Development Consultant, EdTec Inc.
May 2013
Many charter school leaders dream of building the perfect school to meet the needs of their students, teachers and staff. With a million other duties demanding time and attention, these site dreams can become pipe dreams, often going unrealized. Once a school is successfully up and running for a few years, it can become nearly impossible to plan and manage large-scale improvements at its current site, let alone envisioning and building an entirely new one.

Still, with the right combination of foresight, patience and focus, some organizations manage to bring their dreams to fruition, all the while navigating significant hiccups along the way. Los Angeles’ Environmental Charter Schools is a perfect example.

Environmental Charter Schools (ECS) is a growing network of charter schools serving communities in Greater Los Angeles. ECS opened Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale in 2001, which now serves 534 students, and Environmental Charter Middle School temporarily located in Inglewood in 2010, serving 320 students. A second Environmental Charter Middle School will take over the Inglewood site this fall, since the existing middle school has relocated to its new facility.

ECS’ mission is to provide students with unique learning experiences that utilize environmental service learning opportunities. While doing so, ECS has become an educational force to be reckoned with: 98% of their students graduate with coursework necessary for admission to four-year colleges (compared to about 35% statewide), and 97% of their middle school students scored proficient or advanced on the writing portion of the CST.

ECS’ original middle school charter was approved for the city of Gardena, but at the time of approval no site was available there, so ECS received permission from
their authorizer to locate the middle school in the neighboring city of Inglewood. However, the intention was always to serve the community of Gardena, and last year, ECS Founder and Executive Director, Alison Suffet Diaz, identified an unused church facility in Gardena as a potential site. The challenge was to convert the vacant building into a LEED-certified middle school that could include 12 classrooms with indoor/outdoor space, 2 greenhouse classrooms, an outdoor amphitheater and playground, and a 2-story Community Center.

It was an ambitious plan, to say the least, but we’re happy to report that Environmental Charter Middle School-Gardena successfully opened this month. The process was not without its share of challenges. We spoke with Suffet Diaz, Founder & Executive Director of Environmental Charter Schools (ECS), Kami Cotler, Principal of Environmental Charter Middle School, Scott Thomas, CFO of Pacific Charter School Development (PCSD), and Megan Hadden, Vice-President of Real Estate, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, about lessons learned, and expect they will be instructive to other charters fostering plans to grow bigger and better.

Show me the Money

While every school would like to design and build their own facility, it isn’t possible without careful financial planning and management. Charter schools that want to control their own destiny when it comes to a facility have to develop – and stick to – a budget that allows them to accumulate a reserve and run with a consistent annual operating surplus sufficient to cover the financing costs. ECS has been blessed with strong fundraising and community support and has been able to amass cash to fund this expensive project. Even with their corporate and foundation donations, ECS still must take care to watch their cash flow as the middle school is still growing; this is the first year the school has served all grades 6-8. This project also would not have been possible without the
involvement of PCSD. Now that the building is complete, PCSD has taken on the role of lessor and ECS has agreed to eventually purchase the facility.

Given the school’s location and population, ECS is looking into New Market Tax Credits (NMTC) with a Community Development Entity in order to purchase the building. Scott Thomas, CFO of Pacific Charter School Development, notes, “more than 85% of our clients have used New Market Tax Credits to purchase
their facilities.” ECS favors the use of NMTC since interest-only payments will be required for the next seven years and it is common for 20-25% of the loan to be forgiven and counted as equity at the end of the seven-year period. The downside of this arrangement is that ECS will need to refinance the loan at that time, with the hope that interest rates have not skyrocketed.

Pioneer Spirit Pitfalls

When charter organizations want to develop facilities, they often enlist the help of charter-friendly real estate development organizations to help them identify the site and negotiate the acquisition. In the case of ECS, Suffet Diaz found the Gardena property and negotiated the terms of the sale herself. Only then did ECS hire Pacific Charter School Development, a non-
profit charter real estate development organization, to assist with financing and project management.

Independently handling the initial steps of choosing the site and finalizing the sale can make the site design more challenging for all parties. Scott Thomas explains, “We usually take clients to other schools so they can see what they like and don’t like.” When a charter organization is able
to visit other sites, they can bring concrete examples of their priorities to the architects. In the case of
ECMS-Gardena, the school site was going to be created from a rehabilitated building – an unused church. Thomas notes, “You can find out things about buildings that you don’t originally know. This building in particular had a lot of surprises for us, and it was in worse shape than we thought.”

Megan Hadden is currently the Vice-President of Real Estate at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, but previously acted as a consultant to fill in gaps between PCSD project managers, liaising between the general contractor, the architect, and the owner. In speaking about what made ECS’ project unique, she highlighted that “it was a very large tenant improvement of a church building. Previous use was not consistent with education, and it’s very difficult to convert existing spaces into education spaces.” Hadden sums up the complications: “IF, and that is a big IF, you are considering a tenant improvement of a space that has traditionally not been used for educational use–first, reconsider. It is very specialized, complicated, and brings many unknowns to your team and the experts working on the project.”

In hindsight, Kami Cotler, Principal at Environmental Charter Middle School-Gardena, not only recommends visiting other schools before starting the design process, but also having a better understanding of the real priorities of the build: “It’s challenging to run a school and simultaneously manage the creative process the architect wants to engage in. Looking back, I wish I knew it was okay to pick one or two points of coolness and have everything else be functional. This would have simplified the process and helped control the budget. Next time, I would put together a master list of ‘Must- Haves’ and then a ranked list of ‘Nice-to-Haves.’ Then I would ask the architect to put dollar values on the Nice-to-Haves so that we could prioritize what is really necessary.”

Time is of the Essence

One of the most frustrating challenges the team encountered was the amount of time it took to get started once the property was acquired. The original goal was to move into the new site in December of 2012. Then it was February 2013. Then it was April.

ECS had the property under contract in May of 2011, and they began working with Pacific Charter School Development in the fall. The Conditional Use Permit (CUP) process began shortly thereafter, but it took a full eight months to obtain the CUP, so no actual building could happen during that time. PCSD’s Scott Thomas notes, “There is a risk with CUP because you’re just waiting and depending on the city to approve your plans. It’s very frustrating because it’s completely out of your control.” PCSD was able to close on the property for ECS in June of
2012 when CUP was finalized, and construction finally began in August.

School leadership at ECS originally planned for the school to have a Mid-Winter Break so that move-in could happen in December 2012. Because the space wasn’t ready in December, they had to change that plan. They ultimately decided to offer a 2-week Spring Break instead, and conduct the move-in then. Not only did this affect everybody’s break schedule, but the larger school calendar had to be reconfigured; the Board had to approve all the changes, and the staff and students had to be increasingly flexible throughout the process. Timing challenges can’t necessarily be planned for with any accuracy, but anticipation and flexibility are key to coping with them.

We’re Building a Building!

Once the initial challenges of timing and financing were met, the fact remained: the school site still had to be built out. Scott Thomas of PCSD explains, “It’s extremely important to understand what the client wants out of the building. Do they want architectural flair? Should it be purely functional and really maximize space? Is the goal for it to be the least expensive build? In the end, you can’t maximize all three – you need to be very clear that there are trade-offs.”

This idea of a trade-off isn’t only true for the project as a whole, but for all the minutiae of the build, too. Suffet Diaz explains, “We wanted windows facing the exterior hallway because we knew that students learn better with natural light. This created a bunch of questions: If we have those windows, should we have
blinds? If the blinds are expensive, should we only have tall windows so that blinds aren’t necessary? Should the windows be frosted? And on and on.”

In the end, they decided to add the windows and install blinds, but the blinds open from the bottom, which is distracting for students because they see everybody walking by. If they had realized this problem beforehand, they would have installed blinds that open from the top, to allow for the natural light, but not serve as an unnecessary distraction for the students.

A Balancing Act

An additional challenge can present itself in the management of the building process itself. “There is a constant tension of opposites: the builder wants something simple, fast and executable while the architect desires something interesting, creative and beautiful,” explains Cotler. Aside from balancing these competing interests, you also run the risk of getting past the City gatekeepers. PCSD’s Thomas says, “It’s vital to understand the city process; the plan may meet Code by the plan checker, but the inspector can interpret the code differently and decide to override the previous plan.”

Fortunately, ECS had already become adept at keeping necessary information organized and indexed at the Board level. “In our weekly minutes, the history of issues — Permits, Schedule, Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, etc. — were reflected, so it was easy to keep track of how things were resolved. Everyone was kept up to date.” It’s crucial to keep the school’s leadership, the contractors and architects aware and informed at every step of the process so that accountability doesn’t slip through the cracks.

A final stakeholder to keep in mind is the community around the new site itself. Cotler notes, “It’s important to remember to be a good neighbor, and really create a foundation for that prior to moving to the area.” Not only that, but you have to be vigilant in keeping the lines of communication open so that you can continue to be a good neighbor once you have officially moved in. Cotler continues, “You don’t want a contentious relationship. This involves educating the parents because, for example, if someone blocks a neighbor’s driveway and that resident complains to the city, this can complicate the school’s Conditional Use Permit renewal process. We have to teach them that their behavior impacts the school.”

Opening Day

When asked why they wanted to construct their own school, Suffet Diaz explained, “We want to create a textbook for learning; this facility is a page in that book. With our own school we get to design the campus we want. Otherwise we would need a long-term lease and an excellent relationship with the owner. We wouldn’t be able to make all the site improvements we would want. Besides, Prop 39 assignments are at the district’s whim and are only for a 1- year term, so we couldn’t think about what we wanted our school to feel like in the long-term.” Reinventing a space clearly has its benefits, but Hadden warns, “If you’re going that route, inflate your budget. Make sure the acquisition or lease price gives you the flexibility and contingency you will need for construction – all of it will cost you more than you think it will.”

On Monday, April 8th all of the current students at ECMS-Inglewood moved to the new ECMS-Gardena site, and in August, ECMS-Inglewood will begin serving another 180 new students for the 2013/14 year. Cotler is proud to report that all ECMS- Gardena teachers now have their own classrooms and four of them include a garage door opening to an outdoor learning space. It’s heartening to see that this school is not only serving the community the petition was originally written for, but also providing a green space to truly fulfill the organization’s mission. ECS has plans to renovate the ECMS-Inglewood site in the future, and when that happens, they feel confident that they will be prepared in understanding the process better and knowing what they want and how to make it happen.

Suffet Diaz is now looking ahead to Phase II of the ECMS- Gardena construction, “the fun spaces – a multi-purpose room, art space, kitchen and reception area…the greenhouses, the vines that are an art feature which will climb the walls, signifying the community’s contributions to our growth.” Clearly, the leadership of ECS have a grand
vision for the ultimate green learning space. Phase I, now complete, was to construct clean and bright classrooms with places for plants and trees inside the facility, and that mission was not only a frustrating and challenging process, but also an unqualified success.

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