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Michelle Vruwink Archives - North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools

Permanence, postponed: A charter facility built on personal loans and delay

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Situated on 11 acres in Asheville, North Carolina, the Franklin School of Innovation offers families a charter school experience amid sweeping vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The school, which launched a decade ago, serves 700 students in grades 5-12, melding real-world learning with soft skills and character education. It’s working: Accolades are rolling in. In 2023, FSI garnered “Best of Asheville” awards in middle, high, and charter school categories. This year, it ranks among the state’s top 20 charter high schools.

It’s all happening in a facility that’s beautiful, commodious—and new.

Is FSI an archetypal school success story? Surely, in some ways it is. But it’s also a story of obstacles overcome. “There were so many opportunities where it totally could have fallen apart,” Michelle VruwinkFSI’s founder and executive director, says of the school’s start.

Finding an initial facility to lease was arduous. “Everybody said no,” says Vruwink.

Funding a facility was even more challenging. In North Carolina, public charter schools receive no facility funds, unlike district schools. Instead, charters must cobble together funds from loans, grants, operating dollars, and other sources. That can push leaders to the point of extremity. “I took a second mortgage on my house and made a loan” to fund modular classrooms early on, Vruwink says. Two board members provided personal loans.

Temporary spaces and years-long construction projects followed. The school’s 10th year, 2023, marked the first time students were all together in one building.

From concept paper to charter school

FSI began with a concept paper Vruwink wrote herself. She envisioned a school that would provide an engaging, equitable education—but could help resolve her own parenting dilemma. In middle school, her son had shifted from an engaged, happy student to “not wanting to go to school at all,” Vruwink says. Other parents of adolescents voiced similar sentiments. “Nobody was really thriving,” says Vruwink.

Moreover, external factors seemed favorable for a charter launch. Asheville had no charter high schools, and state lawmakers had removed the 100-school cap. Vruwink saw an open door.

Securing approval was easy, but start-up was difficult. “None of us was connected to money or sources of funding,” Vruwink says.

Fortunately, a local philanthropy, the Glass Foundation, agreed to purchase 11 acres of land and lease it back to FSI. The foundation also provided a grant to fund the lease. But the land was undeveloped and preparing it for modulars was costlier than expected. Reluctantly, Vruwink returned to the foundation, and its leaders agreed to an interest-free loan.

But there was another problem: Modulars wouldn’t be ready for FSI’s August 2014 opening. With one month to go, Vruwink signed a lease for a vacant preschool building, housing the 6th and 7th graders. Nearby, a local university’s satellite campus could accommodate the older students.

Conditions that first year were far from optimal. “We had tiny preschool toilets for our middle school students!” remembers Vruwink. At the university campus, teachers packed up classrooms daily.

Early finances were tenuous. “We didn’t have any money other than those loans from board members to get us through until that October drop of [state] funds,” says Vruwink.

A bank loan, a bond, and a building 

Circumstances began to turn, albeit slowly. The land gained value, and Vruwink won a federal start-up grant award. “By the end of that first year, we were able to retire the loans that everybody had made, and we had some critical cashflow,” she says. The next year, students moved to modulars on FSI’s land.

Five years in, school leaders were ready to begin building a permanent facility. But procuring a bank loan was like déjà vu. Again, “everybody said no to us,” says Vruwink. Banks were risk-averse and ill-informed, she says. “Their favorite line is, ‘What if [lawmakers] change the law and there are no charter schools next year?’”

Determined, Vruwink hired a consultant, who helped FSI access an $8 million bank loan. The school began construction on first floor offices, classrooms, and a multi-purpose space. The building’s second level would have to wait.

During FSI’s seventh year, Vruwink took a cold call from an organization offering bond financing. The bank loan, topping out at $10 million, would allow her to finish the second floor—but she couldn’t build the gymnasium. Vruwink believed FSI could afford both. So, she moved forward with a bond, wrapping construction during the school’s ninth year.

What does Vruwink wish lawmakers and the public knew about charter facility financing? “It’s just so hard,” she says. “It takes away from our ability to invest in our educational programs. I had to learn how to write a bond. We did it all ourselves.”

After nearly a decade of temporary or unfinished structures, the new and finished building is a powerful emblem of stability. “It gives a sense of permanence that helps people feel more secure,” Vruwink says.

 You feel real. You have a building you can be proud of.”

 

Photo credits: Franklin School of Innovation.