Indiana charter schools (real estate profiteering concerns)

CHARTER SCHOOLS AND VULTURES; April 18, 2011; The Journal Gazette 
When the Texas Board of Education reviewed the application for a charter school to be operated by Imagine Schools Inc., board member David Bradley had a question for company CFO Barry Sharp.

"So are you in the real estate business or the charter (school) business?" Bradley asked.

A great question. It's one the Allen County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals is asking, as well. Based on an Indiana Supreme Court decision from December, the board is reviewing the property tax exemption for the Imagine MASTer Academy in Fort Wayne.

In a review of the school's complex real estate arrangements, I came across a fascinating observation by Brent Van Alfen, who has advised charter schools on financing. He warns of the relationship between education management organizations like Imagine Schools Inc. and real estate investment trusts:

"There are many of these REIT/(education management organization) partnerships that remind me of a couple of vultures feeding off of an emaciated carcass."
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The news about charter schools, their owners, and the money they make goes back to December to the state Supreme Court. In reversing a decision by the Indiana Tax Court, the justices ruled that a property owner doesn’t automatically qualify for a tax exemption even if property is used for a charitable or exempt purpose.

From that one decision, some charter school books are being opened in Fort Wayne. Taxpayers can learn where some of their tax dollars are going, and a lot of them leave the state and end up at a company boasting of attractive profits from a “reliable cash flow.”

A company is summoned. Based on that Supreme Court decision and a January memorandum from the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, Allen County officials summoned JERIT CS Fund LLC, the real estate investment trust listed as owner of the Wells Street campus of the Imagine schools, to defend its property tax exemption…

The tangle of leases and subleases, for-profit management organizations, charter school boards and real estate investors involved in some of the state’s existing charter schools begs for transparency before more tax dollars start flowing out of state.

Statewide, a lot of money is spent. Taxpayers will spend more than $3.2 million in rent this year on just four Indiana charter schools. Most of the dollars are flowing to a Kansas City, Mo., real estate company that earned $84.7 million in profits last year. And while the Allen County board is scrutinizing the property tax exemption sought for the company’s property on North Wells Street, Entertainment Properties Trust can’t lose: Its triple net lease agreement makes the tenant – Indiana taxpayers – responsible for maintenance costs, utilities, insurance and taxes…

JERIT (see box on cover) bought the Wells Street campus from Schoolhouse Finance for $5.5 million – $2.6 million more than North Wells Schoolhouse paid the YWCA for the property just two years earlier and about $1 million more than its assessed valuation…

Steve Zacher, president of The Zacher Company, a Fort Wayne commercial real estate company, said in an interview that there was no market explanation for the rent increases.

“It seems like someone is making a killing,” he said. “People can get a fair return on their investment, but somebody is getting a way-above-normal return.”

Bryant appeared at the PTABOA hearing alongside Fink. He characterized the complex real estate deals as a means of leveraging investments to acquire more charter school facilities…

Why the court ruling matters. The Indiana Supreme Court decision that prompted the review might well result in the exemption’s being denied. A denial would set up the first test of the ruling. It holds that a property owner – not just the tenant – must demonstrate the property is owned for a tax-exempt purpose.

That could be a tough case for Entertainment Properties Trust (see box on cover) to make. In a video annual report posted on its website, the publicly traded company boasts returns to shareholders of almost 40 percent, citing public charter schools as a promising sector in a portfolio of specialty real estate that also includes megaplex theaters, water parks, ski resorts and vineyards…

Ohio is a laboratory for Imagine Schools Inc. Imagine Schools Inc. has become the largest charter school operator in the nation, with 73 schools. Policy Matters Ohio, a nonpartisan think tank, examined Imagine Schools’ model in a comprehensive report released last May.

“Schoolhouse Finance spent a combined total of $6 million to buy five Ohio properties that now house four Imagine schools,” according to Piet van Lier, the author of the report.

“Within 22 months of the purchase date for each property, Schoolhouse Finance has sold all five properties to one of three REITs for a combined total of more than $26 million. According to state audits and lease documents obtained through public records requests, the non-profit charter schools run by Imagine continue to operate under long-term leases with Schoolhouse Finance, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent each year to the Imagine subsidiary.”…

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