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As St. Paul Public Schools eye another budget deficit due in large part to having fewer students, the charter school movement that has drawn thousands of city children — and the funding they generate — is thriving.

Upper Mississippi Academy is readying a move from the West End to a downtown site where classroom and gallery spaces are larger and students have a variety of places to explore on "community day."

Poised to take its place on the West End is a new charter school: the St. Paul School of Northern Lights.

Add to that a second campus for the long-established Higher Ground Academy and another new charter school where a Lutheran school once operated and these are heady times for school choice proponents. Not coincidentally, critics are stepping up to voice dissent.

The St. Paul Federation of Educators has quizzed school board and City Council candidates about whether they would back a moratorium on charter school growth pending a comprehensive look at the schools' effects on the community. No such proposal has been drafted, but it's generated strong support, including from council members with charter schools in their wards.

"YES," Jane Prince, an East Side incumbent, wrote in response. "As an education matter impacting the entire city, I believe a study is needed to assess the rapid expansion of charter schools in St. Paul."

A new group, Parents for St. Paul Schools, has formed with a similar aim to rein in charter school growth. The group cites the siphoning of kids and resources from district schools and the billing back to local districts the cost of educating special-education students as reasons why it backs a moratorium. It also has concerns about the planned opening of the St. Paul School of Northern Lights just blocks from the district's Linwood Monroe Arts Plus School.

Linwood Monroe PTA President Jason Johnson is among the group's members, as is former Galtier Community School PTO President Clayton Howatt. Three years ago, Howatt helped lead his community's push to save Galtier from being closed by former district Superintendent Valeria Silva.

Joe Nathan, a longtime advocate of school choice options and director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change, took note this month of Galtier's successful crusade, and said of Howatt and his new allies: "Isn't it ironic that they're trying to limit options for other families?"

Nathan said the state's charter school law, the first in the country, "has had strong bipartisan support from the very beginning," meaning any eventual move to curtail choice could face long odds.

But the city does control zoning, and some St. Paul council members have grown weary of charter schools taking over commercial-industrial properties and removing them from the property-tax rolls.

Budget pain

In 1992, City Academy, the nation's first charter school, opened in St. Paul. The movement was slow to start but then took off in St. Paul. Over the past 12 years, it's doubled its pull of the city's school-aged children from 11% of the population to 22%, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state enrollment data.

The school district, in turn, has seen enrollment fall. Even after voters approved $18.6 million a year in new funding in November, officials are projecting a $2.9 million general fund deficit for 2019-20.

This month, Harry Adler, executive director of Upper Mississippi Academy, sat in the long hallway between the History Theatre and the former McNally Smith College of Music — soon to be the academy's long-awaited permanent home. He spoke of students in his school's extracurricular theater program perhaps tapping the expertise of History Theatre playwrights.

Of the competitive school environment in St. Paul, he said, "No one has been hostile, but we're not necessarily welcome." Asked about the pro-moratorium forces, he said charter schools, unlike their larger district counterparts, cannot levy for additional funding. St. Paul Public Schools can say, "We can go raise taxes," and get their 70% support, Adler said.

With the moratorium talk, district backers now want it both ways, he added, not only getting taxpayers to pay more, but also limiting competition.

A year ago, the Metro Deaf School appeared before the City Council in its role as the Housing and Redevelopment Authority to ask the city to issue revenue bonds on its behalf to finance the charter school's move to an office/warehouse building at 1125 Energy Park Drive.

The HRA learned then that because of the school's nonprofit status, total taxes on the property would drop from about $250,000 to $36,000 annually.

"We only have so much vacant taxable property," Council Member Rebecca Noecker said.

HRA Chairman Chris Tolbert said he knew of a charter school elsewhere with a beautiful sports field that a school district would love to have — and how it also was "taking away kids from our great St. Paul Public Schools."

Later, Howatt sent a video link to the HRA discussion to Steve Marchese, a St. Paul school board member. Marchese recalled in a recent interview thinking the effort to build support for a school levy hike while commercial properties were going off the tax rolls seemed at "cross purposes." It's been 25 years since the start of open enrollment and charter schools, he said, and it's worth asking, "So, how's it going?"

Council members suggested at the HRA meeting that charter schools should be addressed in the city's new comprehensive plan, and that Samantha Henningson, then an interim City Council member, soon would be returning with a policy addressing the concern about commercial properties being turned over to tax-exempt status.

Now, Henningson is out of office, and Tolbert, asked this month what became of the policy idea, said, "I suspect it went away with her."

Staff writer MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.