Thomas Kearney

Like all enterprises, charter schools can fail and that possibility is important to recognize and can create positive motivation for better financial planning, says Thomas Kearney, principal-superintendent of New Heights K-12 in Stillwater.


While the City of Marine on St. Croix is considering the purchase of the former Marine Elementary school from Stillwater Schools, and if it can attract the new River Grove charter school, or part of it, back to the city, the advice of a longtime Stillwater charter school principal-superintendent on such a transaction is timely indeed.

The two sides are still in negotiation on a potential sale/purchase of the Marine Elementary property. Good advice to both parties, though not in so many words, could be summarized as “do your homework.” But educator Thomas Kearney’s advice is not meant to be specific to Marine on St. Croix. Instead it’s guidance that might apply to any city thinking about purchasing a property and leasing to a school, rare as that might be.

Kearney has been principal-superintendent and teacher at New Heights K-12, the oldest school of its kind in the U.S., for more than 20 years. He describes charter schools as unique, in part because their leaders have broader responsibilities than most public school principals, like ensuring that the school building will be available for the long term, something Kearney says he worried about for years before he led a successful purchase.

The Stillwater principal says he has not known of an arrangement in Minnesota that has a city buying a school building and leasing it back to the school. He described his own experience in managing a charter school, operating a campus, and producing a stream of revenue sufficient to address major projects like new roofs, as challenging and complex.

He emphasized he did not have firsthand knowledge of matters pertaining to Marine Elementary, and did not want to meddle, but nonetheless would answer questions and has concerns about how a city owning a school would share liabilities should they lease a school property.

A few of Kearney’s questions:

—In the case of a city purchasing a property to lease to a charter school: What would the city council’s interests be?  

—Is there potentially a conflict of interest regarding any particular council member’s relationship to a teacher or student of the charter school?  

—Did the council consult the broader community before deciding to be property owners incurring all sorts of new liabilities?  

—Is the community prepared, for example, to put a new roof on a school, or perhaps install a new boiler and HVAC system?

—What is the condition of the property and what foreseeable or unforeseeable expense could arise from the purchase?

—Who will manage and care for the property?

—What happens if the new charter fails to generate the necessary revenue to pay its lease, or fails to exist after the next few years?

Kearney also addressed the idea of a charter school having and maintaining two separate campuses. Higher costs are his chief concern. Including:

—Transportation costs if students are moving between the two facilities within the day

—Insurance liabilities for the buildings and student-based liabilities

—Doubling of costs such as heating and water

—Costs associated with regulatory compliance like fire codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Any sale of property is—like the devil—in the details, and a simplification like ‘all should know who pays for what’ doesn’t cover bets, so to speak. Nor does ‘the unforeseen can soon get mean.’ But as business proverbs go, they’re a place to start.

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