BY CHRISTOPHER D. RINGWALDWhen the topic of St. Teresa of Avila School merging with Holy Cross, both in Albany, arose up at recent meetings of the Helderberg Neighborhood Association, members worried that St. Teresa's could be leased or sold to a charter school.
"That comes up all the time," said Kim Alvarez, vice-chair of the group. "There's a large contingent at meetings that say, 'It wouldn't fly, it wouldn't be supported,' especially next to [the public New Scotland Elementary] school."
Some neighbors may like the idea, she added: "There are probably new families in the neighborhood that say, 'That would be great, one more option.'"
It's a common question, especially in Albany where a tenth charter school, an all-girls high school, was recently approved. But such fears are largely baseless, according to Sister Jane Herb, IHM, Albany diocesan schools superintendent.
"We've pretty much had a policy that we will not lease or rent buildings to charter schools, or to an entity that will cause competition with our own schools," said Sister Jane. "In the past we have heard from them and we told them, 'We're not selling.'"
So far, at least publicly, few have advocated putting a charter school in the St. Teresa buildings.
"I'm not aware of any interest, and there's not any need now for space that I know of," said Peter Murphy, director of policy and communications for the New York Charter Schools Association.
He said that the recently approved Albany Leadership Charter High School for Girls will build its own facility on land it already has. That is slated to open in 2010.
Noel Olsen, director of real property for the Albany Diocese, said he received one inquiry from a charter school about the St. Teresa buildings but put them and other callers off until diocesan procedures and issues are settled.
Further, Sister Jane said that if a parish wants to sell or lease property to an educational institution, it would need approval from the diocesan school board.
Under the final Called to be Church pastoral plan, unveiled last month, St. Teresa school will merge and move in with Holy Cross school on Western Ave. in July.
Meanwhile, St. Teresa's parish will merge with St. Catherine's parish by October.
That new entity may want to use St. Teresa's school for religious education or other purposes, Mr. Olsen said.
Sister Jane said that there have been two exceptions to the schools office's no-charters approach.
One was the Ark Community Charter School in Troy, which has leased space in former Catholic schools since 2001. "Their mission is to serve the very poor, who would not be able to afford tuition," Sister Jane explained, so it would not compete with local Catholic schools. Further, "We felt that by leasing space to them, it enabled the families of poor students to have a choice in their education."
The other exception was St. James School in Albany, which has been leased to Brighter Choice Charter School but on a short-term basis, she said. The current lease expires at the end of this year, but there is option to renew it until mid-2011, according to the Office of Real Property.
Still, concerns remain, especially after the Diocese of Brooklyn and New York City announced a plan this month to convert four closing Catholic schools to charters. In Washing-ton, D.C., a similar move was taken in 2007-8 with seven Catholic schools.
Since public school districts fund charters on a per-pupil basis, many oppose these as a drain on funds that are hard to recoup.
"It's difficult to save the money that goes out," said Mark Mishler, co-president of the Albany City Council of PTAs. "We have more charter schools per capital than any other district in the state."
Ron Lesko, a spokesman for the City School District of Albany, seconded the concern. "We absolutely are opposed to what we see as the disproportionate proliferation of charters schools in the City of Albany," he said.
Mr. Mishler said he hoped other uses, such as after-school or community programs, would be found for any unused Catholic school buildings.