Editor’s Note: We understand that the planning and financing of any facility project are complex, time-consuming, and have the potential to distract your team from its core mission: serving your students. That’s why we wanted to sit down with the Founder and Executive Director of Desert Star Academy, Margie Montgomery, to get her insights and tips on planning for a charter school facility project. To help other charter leaders embark on their facility project, Margie generously shares what she’s learned and what she wished she knew before she started her facilities project—and what she’ll do now as she embarks on yet another!
We think it’s vital to keep tabs on the pulse of all things related to charter schools, including informational resources, and how to support charter school growth. We hope you find this—and any other blog post we write—both interesting and valuable. Below you will find the video and the transcript. Please read on to learn more.
Janet Johnson (JJ): Hello. I’m Janet Johnson with Charter School Capital and we’re honored today to be with a rising star in helping other people understand how to negotiate the charter school landscape, Margie Montgomery, who is the executive director and founder of Desert Star Academy in Arizona. And Tricia Blum, who is also with Charter School Capital and we’re just going to talk a little bit today about how facilities can trip you up and how you can be so much better as a result of negotiating your way through the morass Right?
Margie Montgomery (MM): Absolutely.
Tricia Blum (TB): So before we get there, I’d like to ask you a question that we’re asking all of our schools and thought leaders we’re talking to and that’s … We’re doing a campaign called We Love Charter Schools. You know that because you have socks that say that.
TB: Can you please tell us in two sentences or less why you love charter schools?
MM: It gives family and friends a choice of education. They can choose what charter school to go to and charter schools have a lot more flexibility than the district schools.
TB: I think that’s super interesting. Can you tell me how many days a week your students or scholars go to school?
MM: In Arizona, the charter school calendar is 144 days. We typically, as most charter schools in Arizona, go 144 days and it’s a four day work week. We go Monday through Thursday. Our hours are a little bit longer. We go an hour and a half longer than the other schools in our area but we get it done in four days.
TB: Your parents are really appreciative of that, right?
MM: They do love that. We’ve noticed it helps on attendance. It also helps with staff attendance because you have that Friday to do all of your business. You can schedule doctor’s appointments then, you can schedule whatever you need to do on Friday and still have a full weekend.
JJ: That’s awesome.
TB: I know. I’d forgotten about that. That’s why I was like, “Oh we have to talk about that.”
MM: It’s amazing. Yes, absolutely.
Consider Your Facility Constraints and Know the Rules for your Charter School Facility
TB: Okay so we’re going to talk, as we said, about facilities and you have been in what I would call hyper-growth mode, right? Four years, 460 students. Bang, bang, bang, bang. So you have a new building, tell me what were your expectations going into getting a new building?
MM: I didn’t have time for expectations. I was like get me a building. We had our first year of 67 kids and we were renting, literally, a strip mall. We had four different offices of a strip mall. And it was like, “I need help, I need help.” So we were talking to Charter School Capital from the beginning and the process is very long and it takes a little while to get off the ground so I was just … I need a building.
I had 50 scholars to one classroom and two teachers in that classroom and we literally were calling the fire department to say, “How many scholars can we put into a classroom? What is the capacity for one room?” And I found out that a child’s desk occupies a child. But if you put in a teacher’s desk or you put in other types of tables, it takes away from your square footage and you cannot have as many scholars in the room.
So my teachers were teaching from clipboards and on the board because we had no room for them or their desk. And we just had the scholars in the desks. And we did this for three months. For a whole entire quarter. And it was a challenge.
It was a challenge keeping the parents happy knowing that they were getting incredibly impatient. But in the end, Charter School Capital came through for us, they built us a fabulous building, beyond belief and made everybody incredibly happy.
TB: Yeah. Amazing, right?
MM: It was. And it still is.
TB: I think what you said is amazing too because what I’m hearing you say is look, I just needed a building, I could have done with anything, doesn’t matter, right? Just give me a building.
MM: I was. I was like I don’t need a Taj Mahal, I just need a building. I need walls and I need a building. But by the time it actually all rolled around, we were picking colors and we were doing landscaping and furniture and all this exciting stuff. And pretty soon I got the Taj Mahal.
Understand the Realities of the Process and Get Prepared
TB: What do you wish you knew before you started? Because like you said, I didn’t have time to think, I just needed a building.
MM: I wish I knew the process and the length of time that it truly takes and the planning involved and all of the construction aspects of the planning. Getting it through Charter School Capital, it had to be approved through this business and that business or the sections of the different companies.
I wish I had a better understanding of that. In fact, if anybody has a building, that should be one of the things that the client should go through, is this is the process and this is the time that it takes and this is what you need. Because they were always asking for financial this or that and this. And so I was literally jumping through hoops and I found myself not as prepared as I would have liked to have been.
TB: Right. And that’s because you have to have financials, there’s a plan that has to be agreed on with you and construction and then you have to get permits and you’re talking about all sorts of that kind of process, right? Is that what I’m understanding you say?
MM: I was a building principal and I ran the school and so the whole everything else from building to facilities was just … I had no idea about it. But it was a learning process and I would do it all over again.
TB: Well you’re getting ready to do it all over again.
TB: Right. We’re gonna add some more grades. She’s already facilities constrained. Right?
JJ: That’s great.
TB: So apparently if you build it they will come.
MM: They absolutely will come and that has been our story. We started with 64 scholars in 2014 and we right now have 437 and our cap is 475. So we are really constrained.
JJ: Well but congratulations on the success.
MM: Thank you so much.
JJ: You’re making a lot of families happy, aren’t you?
MM: We are. We have a lot of happy children.
Make a plan with your builders: the details matter
TB: What would you have done differently? I know we talked a little bit about that but I have some ideas, like on the (furniture, fixtures, and equipment) FF&E, on the whiteboards and the lockers and paint colors … tell us about paint colors because that was a really funny, funny as in interesting, right? Because Margie had a very clear idea what paint color she wanted and the contractor had a very clear idea on what paint colors the contractor did not want. So I think that’s an interesting, again you have to negotiate that. The thing is why would you even think you have to negotiate that, right?
MM: You wouldn’t think so. But we came across that, absolutely. And so I think the next time I want to sit down with the builders and talk about a plan. Well, in education you have to have colors. I couldn’t live with just two colors. And so it was quite funny because I was talking to the contractor and to the superintendent and saying, “Well, if these are the only two colors that I have to pick from, this is what I’m picking. But I will tell you, as soon as you’re out of town, we’re going to repaint these walls and we’re gonna add color.”
And so it was a negotiation as far as alright, well if you have this can you live without that? And I was like yep, I can do that. So, we had brick on the outside of our building and it was like well we only need brick on half of the building so let’s take the other half of the building brick off and we added lockers because that was a commitment to the parents, to our community that we have lockers.
The year before when we were constrained in this building, before we had our facility, parents were like, “They have to carry their books around.” Some of these backpacks were heavier than these girls and you thought they were going to tip over.
Just have knowledge of the process and meet with the builders because the facilities people are out of state, they don’t know the community. Every community is different and unique. And if you’re going to be successful in the community, I think it’s really important as a leader of the community and leader of the school to listen to your community. Truly listen to them. Listen to the parents, listen to their concerns, listen to what they like.
The first thing that they do when they come in either one of our buildings is like, “Whoa.” And it’s the colors. We are not a white school, we are not an institution. Our elementary school is turquoise, and red, and yellow, and bright. And it’s all mixed up. It looks like blocks and it looks fun and exciting. Our middle school is apple, orange, and blueberry, literally. And it looks very techy. Very techy for that customer. And so we kind of looked at those scholars and the parents as our customers so we aim to please and it was really exciting. A lot of fun.
MM: Thank you.
TB: Now you’ve got a new building to do, are you going to do the same colors?
MM: Similar. Similar.
Working with Charter School Capital
TB: One last question, if you would, please tell me or tell us a little bit about your experience working with Charter School Capital.
MM: Amazing. Absolutely amazing. From everybody to Tricia to the COO, Brad, yes. I remember Brad.
TB: He did visit your school.
MM: And he saw all the colors.
TB: And he said it was a sweet school. He said he would love to send his kids there. And I agreed with him for sure.
MM: Incredibly supportive. Very, very supportive. And you know, I was very excited through the whole building facilities process is they allowed the contractors and the people to actually talk with us and negotiate with us. So they were not rigid like, “No, this is what we’re doing and this is what we like.” Because they liked two colors. And from what I understood it wasn’t bright colors, it was very subdued colors. But they understood and I think as a whole Charter School Capital understands that every market is different. So I appreciate that.
MM: On the funding side, again, Tricia’s been amazing.
JJ: She is.
TB: Thank you.
MM: You know, Bryan and Christina has led us in a lot of different directions, helped us out when they don’t have to. But they have that very personal touch and commitment to the schools and to the client. So it’s very nice to say that we’re partners with Charter School Capital.
JJ: What a nice way to end.
TB: Thank you.
JJ: Thank you, Margie.
MM: Absolutely. We would not be the school that we are and we would definitely not be in the position that we are without Charter School Capital funding the growth and really taking an interest in charter schools and helping the charter schools grow. Charter schools are a huge movement, they’re so successful across the country and the states do not typically like … There’s not money for facilities provided for the state. So I think for you guys, whoever came up with a niche to go out to the charter schools and help them fund is amazing. Thank you.
TB: Thank you.
The 5 Essential Steps to Charter School Facilities Planning
Charter school facilities planning can be daunting. If you think that finding the perfect facility for your charter school seems like a huge, complicated undertaking, you’re in good company. This handy, information-packed guide, will help as you move towards realizing your facility expansion or relocation goals.
In it, we cover these five essential charter school facility planning steps—in detail:
- Plan – Begin planning at least one year in advance
- Fund – Understand your options to make savvy decisions
- Acquire – You know what you can afford and how you’ll pay for it … now go get it
- Design – Partner with experts to design your new space
- Execute – Let the construction begin and get ready to move in