Lee charter school future uncertain after management company pulls out

tgrubb@newsobserver.commschultz@newsobserver.comMarch 23, 2013 

This story incorrectly reported that the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School was the first charter school approved for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools District.

The future of the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School is uncertain after the school’s management company pulled out of the project.

“We’re very disturbed and disappointed,” said Danita Mason-Hogans, a board member of the planned school. “Right now we’re trying to decide what we’re going to do as a board.”

The school, named for former state Sen. Howard Lee, a former mayor of Chapel Hill, and his wife, Lillian Lee, who is an educator, received final state approval March 6 and was scheduled to open in August.

The school has promoted a focus on closing the achievement gap and college readiness. It had hired a principal and, with formal approval, was getting ready to enroll students.

But the for-profit Michigan-based National Heritage Academies management firm and the school itself, a charter approved for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district, had drawn some criticism locally.

Efforts to reach National Heritage Academies for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

Charter schools are public schools that operate with less state regulation, but receive public money.

The Lee school could have cut at least $4.6 million from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools System’s per-pupil state funding in its first year, according to the school system. The cost to the school sytem could have grown to $7 million over four years as the K-5 school expanded to a K-8 school with more than 700 students.

Joel Medley, the director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, said he had not heard of the development. In an email, he said a new management firm would represent a change in the school’s charter and require State Board of Education approval.

Efforts to reach Angela Lee, who submitted the state charter application, and other board members were unsuccessful.

Mason-Hogans, a Chapel Hill native and educator, said the board only learned last week that National Heritage Academies was dropping the school.

“We were taken aback and shocked when we heard rumbling of this,” she said, adding that she didn’t know enough yet to comment on why the company pulled out.

The school was planned to go into the proposed Claremont South subdivision on Homestead Road in Carrboro.

Town planner James Harris said developer Omar Zinn pulled the project earlier this month from agendas for a town advisory boards meeting March 7 and a Board of Aldermen meeting March 21.

Zinn did not give a reason for pulling the project, Harris said.

Superintendent Tom Forcella said he had not heard the news about Lee school. The school system will still include possible funding for the charter school in its budget, while it awaits concrete information, he said.

“If we find out earlier the school is not moving forward, it would be better for our budget,” Forcella said.

A seventh-generation Chapel Hill resident, Mason-Hogans said the board has worked for two years to give families school choice and she still wants to see the school happen.

“The perception is a whole bunch of people opposed the school,” she said. “I would counter an equal number was in support of the school.

“What I can tell you is I wanted and want to be part of a school with high expectations for children,” she said. “I wanted to have teachers that are willing to try nontraditional ways to help students become their best selves and provide a path to college readiness.”

Grubb: 919-932-8746 Schultz: 919-932-2003

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