Metro Charter School Still Can’t Find a Home
LA Downtown News
By Eddie Kim
March 13, 2017
DTLA – It may only be March, but school administrators around Los Angeles are already preparing for the 2017-18 academic year.
For Downtown Los Angeles’ Metro Charter Elementary School, the task looms significantly larger: It hasn’t figured out where classes will be held in the fall.
Founded in 2013, Metro Charter has grown quickly, as the initial crop of 80 students has blossomed today into 250 children from kindergarten through fifth grade, with 25 teachers and administrators. All the while, Metro Charter has been headquartered in South Park’s California Hospital Medical Center.
That arrangement was always intended to be temporary, and the hospital has allowed the school to fill space longer than originally anticipated. In the meantime, members of the school’s board have been scouring Downtown for a permanent home.
Yet despite touring sites from City West to the Industrial District, and sometimes entering the late stages of negotiation, nothing has come to fruition. Time and again, said Downtown architect and Metro Charter board member Apurva Pande, deals have collapsed due to high rents and property owners’ preference for restaurants and shops instead of a school.
Now, with less than six months until a new school year begins, Metro Charter officials are left with two imperfect compromises: They will either take some empty classrooms and offices at John H. Liechty Middle School at Seventh and Union streets west of the Downtown core, or attempt to convert office and recreational space in two Financial District buildings.
In the latter scenario, kindergarten through second grade classrooms would be in the Downtown YMCA building at 401 S. Hope St., while third through fifth grades would be at 700 Wilshire, an office building owned by former Metro Charter Board Member Sauli Danpour.
Metro Charter officials notified parents of both options on March 2, according to Principal Kim Clerx.
“The final decision isn’t made until May 1,” Clerx wrote in an email. “We are continuing to pursue both plans.”
No Easy Answers
At a Feb. 23 Metro Charter board meeting, multiple board members said it could take up to a year to secure entitlements and permits to convert the YMCA and 700 Wilshire sites. Beyond the paperwork, the school would have to tackle physical improvements of the office spaces.
That increases the likelihood of co-locating with an existing Los Angeles Unified School District, which comes through a state policy called Prop 39; it dictates that vacant space at public schools be offered to charters in need.
Prop 39 arrangements are administrated through local school districts, and in this case the LAUSD has said that the Liechty school could set aside 12 classrooms, one special education classroom and several offices for administrators — enough to accommodate 300 students.
“It’s not perfect to co-locate, but the middle school is relatively close and transit-served,” board member Noel Hyun Fleming, a land-use lawyer active in Downtown L.A. projects, said at the board meeting.
Sharing space would also be cheaper for Metro Charter. The Prop 39 path would cost about $175,000 for the year, Ryan Griffin, vice president of school finance at the nonprofit ExEd, told board members at the Feb. 23 meeting.
Leases and tenant improvements for the Financial District buildings would cost a little less than $300,000 after state grants, according to Griffin.
Liechty Middle School opened in 2007 and would offer Metro Charter turnkey classroom and office space, as well as plentiful outdoor areas including a playground and basketball courts. While students at the YMCA would be close to recreational areas, those at 700 Wilshire would likely have to be transported (or walk) several blocks for their daily physical activity.
Still, the option raises numerous concerns.
“I feel we will lose families. First, it’s on the wrong side of the freeway for the purposes of our mission of serving Downtown,” board member Amanda Steiman said at the Feb. 23 meeting. “And a middle school campus for young kids? As a parent, I’d be concerned about any interactivity between the groups of students, specifically.”
The issue has divided school stakeholders. Teacher Michelle Lee said splitting up the student body could be disruptive to students.
“Having one location with all of them together increases morale. Keeping our school together is what I feel we should be doing,” Lee told the board. “Readjusting with new students and being in 500 square feet classrooms is hard. It’s making it hard to teach and get our projects off the ground.”
The process of finding a home has been long and complicated. Metro Charter has previously explored unpalatable Prop 39 options, including a move to Atwater Village or limited space at Chinatown’s Castelar Street Elementary School.
Then there have been the numerous attempts to work with Downtown landlords — last spring, board member Pande told Los Angeles Downtown News that school representatives seriously pursued 16 locations in 2015 alone, sometimes preparing engineering and build-out plans. Yet in every instance, deals that had potential fell apart.
One particularly promising option arose late last spring, when school board members began talking with parking lot company L&R Group about setting aside space for Metro Charter in a future development at 840 S. Olive St. that would comprise a parking structure with retail and office space. While it wouldn’t be ready until the 2018-19 school year at the earliest, many in Downtown saw it as the most realistic long-term solution to Metro Charter’s needs.
Like other talks, the deal fell apart in the final stretch because L&R and Metro Charter couldn’t agree on lease pricing, according to sources familiar with the deal.
“At the one proposed site, the fair market value was too high for Metro Charter,” L&R Chief Operating Officer Kevin Litwin stated in an email to Downtown News.
A representative of L&R later said the company hopes to have a school in the project.
Metro Charter parent and former board member Simon Ha, a Downtown architect, has been a part of the school since it opened. With the right facility, Metro Charter could add middle school grades and serve a growing Downtown, he remarked. If plans falter, he said, Downtown parents like himself will have to consider moving to a different community with more convenient and higher-quality schools.
“There has to be some non-monetary satisfaction for a developer to get out of this project, and we’re missing that right now,” Ha said. “Whether it’s a big donor that can give to the school, or a property owner that understands this bigger goal of Downtown and tries to help even if they don’t get top dollar.”
At the Feb. 23 meeting, several board members said future shifts in the Downtown real estate market could change the game plan. They said a market slump could open doors for new deals.
But with the economy booming and rents still high, two clocks are ticking down: one for the coming school year, and one for the continuing hunt to finally find a home for Metro Charter in Downtown L.A.
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