Richard Garza is the CEO of Houston Gateway Academy, a growing charter school network in Texas. More than nine in 10 of his 2,300 students are economically disadvantaged and 40% are English-Language Learners.
“I think it’s obvious that a school school facility is important for a good learning environment,” he said. “I think what a lot of the public doesn’t know is what charter schools have to go through to secure facilities.”
He said public charter schools — even those that already rank at the top of local and national lists — are seen as risky investments, making it expensive for them to finance capital projects with bonds and making it difficult for them to convince banks to give them loans.
It took Garza, who has decades of experience working in private sector finance and accounting, two years and conversations with eight banks to secure two bank loans adding up to $24 million to help him build a new campus to meet the exploding demand for his school.
Garza — whose small charter network was ranked by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford as one of the top five charter management organizations in Texas in its 2015 Urban Charter research — plans to break ground this summer on a new building that will eventually house 1,600 students, and hopes that it will open in August 2017.
Within a few years, Garza said, he hopes to serve about 5,600 students.
That growth will be fueled, he said, by replicating his schools’ academic success — and also its facilities. He owns the architectural plans for the first new building he’s created, and he intends to replicate that building in the future to keep costs low as he continues to scale.
Garza is a big believer in doing more with less. His schools have extended days and pride themselves on bringing students who start out two years behind up to grade level in one school year.
He said the key for public charter schools is to operate like businesses, with high expectations, detailed budgets, cash reserves and contingencies. He said that starts with “finding the right team and holding them accountable.” His schools go without a lot of “specialists” that other schools have in order to save money and finance facilities.
“It’s running it like a business, with the understanding that you’re serving students,” he said, “so you’ve got to make sure your goals are there.”
Learn more about the Building Equity Initiative, a first-of-its-kind nonprofit effort to provide charter schools with access to capital to create and expand facilities.