Texans Can Academies Hits the Charter-School Jackpot, Picking Up an Old Wilmer-Hutchins School Cheaply

There's a reason you find so many charter schools in decrepit strip centers and old Walmarts. Decent, school-appropriate real estate is hard to come by. When it is available, it's expensive, and charter operators, who don't get facilities funding from the state like public schools do, are often forced to make do with whatever space they can find.

With its new Grant East campus in far southeast Dallas, Texans Can Academies is making do just fine. The school is set to open soon in what was formerly Alta Mesa Elementary, a long-shuttered campus that Dallas ISD inherited when it absorbed Wilmer-Hutchins ISD in 2006.

This could mark the first time a charter school in Texas has taken over a former public school.

Tracy Young, a spokeswoman for the Texas Charter School Association, said Spring Branch ISD outside of Houston has invited charter operators to share space, but couldn't think of an instance of a charter school obtaining a former public school. Neither could Benson Sainsbury, president of InSite Charter School Services, which helps operators through the real estate process.

For a space like Alta Mesa, "demand would be high," Sainsbury says.

For starters, such a building is designed for education, with classrooms and cafeterias and administrative offices already built. It's also in the type of low-income, predominately minority area that charter schools seek out, partly, Sainsbury says, because those are the populations that benefit most from expanded educational options and partly because there are more funding opportunities for schools in low-income areas.

So how did Texans Can -- a well-established, politically connected charter operator whose vice president, Lew Blackburn, is on the DISD board of trustees -- manage to score a ready-built campus, that formerly belonged to DISD, for a tiny fraction of its appraised value of $1.1 million?

Documents obtained from DISD show that the district got rid of the property in 2011, returning it to the heirs of the man who originally deeded the land to Wilmer-Hutchins in 1952. Because the deed stipulated that the land "shall be used for public school purposes only," and because DISD had no plans to use the property, it determined it had to be returned.

The heirs, Nancy Milnes and William Garner of Illinois, had no use for the property, much less the property taxes, and tried to return it to DISD. The district refused.

This is where Texans Can comes in. Spokeswoman Jeanne Culver says the charter network had been looking to expand into that part of southeast Dallas for a while. They had looked for space in the area around 2011, eventually opening a campus in an old Albertson's in Pleasant Grove.

"In the meantime, their student enrollment just continued to grow," Culver says. "They identified this area as an area of need."

The Alta Mesa property was located by Texans Can's longtime real estate broker, Eliza Solender, who tracked down and contacted the heirs who agreed to donate the property to the charter network if Texans Can promised to pay closing costs and about $26,000 in back taxes.

Culver says Texans Can is providing the community a service by offering low-income kids another educational option and by occupying a building that's been left to rot.

"There was a prostitute who conducted business in it," she says. "There was a homeless gentleman living in one of the portables and had lived there for three years."

Young, Sainsbury, and other charter school advocates want to see more vacant public schools repurposed as charters. In California and New York City, districts are required to offer unused space to charter operators, and TCSA is pushing for similar legislation in Texas.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.