It looks like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is going nuclear in its war against the charter schools that are siphoning off its students.
Less than three months after signing a lease that would allow VERITAS Community School the use of a vacant building, the school board is likely to vote Tuesday to terminate the charter school’s lease in favor of an academy that would help at-risk Garinger High students catch up.
It’s a severe setback for VERITAS, a fledgling charter that’s providing one of the only diverse student populations in the growing Villa Heights/NoDa area.
Nobody disputes that the school district is well within its legal rights to take this action. But it makes you think about where our public school district’s priorities lie.
“It’s not illegal, it’s just wrong,” said Katy Ridnouer, head of school at VERITAS.
What is a charter school and why is this so contentious?
Let’s back up. A charter school is a public school and doesn’t charge tuition. It operates outside of the local school district, however, and isn’t subject to a lot of the same rules that traditional public schools are. They’re not required to provide bus transportation or offer school lunches, for example (though a lot of them do). They’re also allowed to experiment with school hours and start dates and curriculum.
The issue has become hugely political. When Republicans came to power in the state legislature, one of the first things they did was lift the long-standing cap on how many charter schools can operate in the state. It was once limited to 100. Now there’s no cap, though there is a fairly lengthy process to get approved to open a charter. Advocates say they’re a crucial component to giving parents choice in where their children go to school. And nowhere in North Carolina are charters more prominent than the Charlotte area.
CMS is increasingly losing the battle. Demographic data shows that fewer white and black students attended the district’s schools last year from the year before. The school district still grew, almost entirely fueled by Latino newcomers.
Local school districts feel it in their pocketbooks when students opt out for charter schools. The district has to cut a check to the charter school with a set amount for each student who attends.
The district feels the pressure immensely and has been openly hostile toward charter schools while also lobbying the state to get the same privileges that charters enjoy.
What the district has to say
The CMS argument isn’t unreasonable. Their position is that each year, the district reviews what academic needs it has and looks for the facilities to make it possible. Garinger High has a new principal this year, Kelly Gwaltney, who was pushed from central office administration back to the schoolhouse to turn around what has been a long-struggling school. School board member Eric Davis said it took her a few months into the school year to determine that an academy was in the best interest of the school.
“My responsibilities are to CMS students first,” Davis said. “It appears there is a clear need, a clear benefit and I regret that it creates this disruption to the charter school.”
There’s also the issue of the lease that was signed. It was clearly written with very unfavorable terms toward the charter school. The lease is structured as a year-to-year lease and it appears that it was pretty obvious that CMS could very likely exercise its right to take the property back for next school year.
“There should be no surprise or sense of unfairness,” according to a memo sent by CMS contract attorney Kevin Bringewatt to CMS administrators.
I get that CMS needs to keep its options open at a time when campuses are severely overcrowded and the district is still growing.
Why I think they’re taking out their frustration
But the timing of everything certainly doesn’t help the school district’s case, even though I’m a big advocate for traditional public schools.
Just five months ago, the school board approved in principle a lease with the nonprofit Junior Achievement that would have run for 10 years. VERITAS pushed back, saying they should have the first right to the property under the law.
Once that happened, CMS got a lot more defensive about reserving its rights to use the property. Also, CMS put out plans back in June about how it wanted to create these types of academies at two high schools, West Mecklenburg and Harding. There was no word that Garinger was in the works. As late as July, CMS told the county that it didn’t anticipate needing the site. Now all of a sudden there is a pressing need to create one there.
It’s also not entirely clear to me why the Villa Heights campus is the best place for such an academy. This campus is set up to be an elementary school, not an auxiliary part-time high school location. It’s going to take money to upfit it and will still have amenities that aren’t really needed.
Yes, this is all legal, but it isn’t a good look for a school board that still needs to prove itself to the community.