Charter school to open near gated community in Harnett County

khui@newsobserver.comJanuary 20, 2014 

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David Levinson, developer of Anderson Creek Club.

RAUL R. RUBIERA — The Fayetteville Observer

— A Harnett County developer has gotten state approval to open a charter school this fall, just outside the entrance to his gated golf community.

David Levinson, developer of the Anderson Creek Club, had planned to build the school inside the community’s gate until state education officials raised concerns about public access. But even outside the gate, Anderson Creek Club Charter School could become a model for other developers who want a piece of North Carolina’s expanding charter-school market.

“We’re professionals,” said Levinson, who is also chairman of the school’s board of directors. “We’re not just a bunch of well-meaning parents and teachers who want to start a school. We have parents and teachers on our the board. But we’re also a group of experienced businessmen.”

For left-leaning groups already leery of charter-school expansion, the idea of taxpayer money going to help a gated community raises concerns. The school expects to receive more than $1 million in government funding next school year.

“Charter schools need to be diverse,” said Christopher Hill, director of the education and law project for the N.C. Justice Center. “That’s not something you assume from a gated community. The thought of having a charter school in a development just feels a little icky.”

Charter schools are public schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. There are 127 charter schools in operation this school year in North Carolina, compared with more than 2,000 traditional public schools.

Anderson Creek is among 26 new charter schools the State Board of Education approved this month to open in the fall. It’s part of a wave of expansion that could result in more than 200 charter schools operating in 2015 – double the number that existed until a state limit was lifted in 2011.

Homes up to $1 million

Anderson Creek Club is a sprawling 1,700-acre development about 45 miles south of Raleigh near Spring Lake. It is approved for 4,200 homes with prices ranging from $140,000 to $1 million.

Anderson Creek is the brainchild of Levinson, a former Delaware insurance commissioner who was that state’s Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in 1982. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Vice President Joe Biden came to Anderson Creek and gave it a glowing review. Biden, a former U.S. senator from Delaware, said he was “stunned” by the work his friend had done.

In 2012, Levinson submitted the first application for the charter school. He cited rapid growth in southern Harnett County as part of the reason the school is needed.

Expansion of the Fort Bragg military base in Fayetteville, about a 20-minute drive from Anderson Creek, has helped bring thousands of newcomers to south central North Carolina. Steven Shotz, Levinson’s business partner at Anderson Creek and a member of the charter school’s board, estimated that 70 percent of the development’s roughly 2,000 residents are connected to the military.

The area around Anderson Creek is growing so much that students were reassigned out of a nearby elementary school to a school that has more space, according to Thomas Frye, superintendent of the 21,000-student Harnett County school system.

The charter school fits with Anderson Creek Club’s goal of giving residents the best quality of life possible, Shotz said.

“The schools around here are new but very overcrowded,” he said. “We’ve been talking for years about whether we should open an elementary school to give our children the best quality of life.”

‘A need in that area’

Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, said there’s a need for more schools of any kind in that part of the state to keep up with growth. He noted that Anderson Creek is Harnett County’s first charter school, while Cumberland County has only one charter, and Lee County has none.

“People may not like where the charter school is located,” he said. “But it seems to me there’s a need for that charter school in that area.”

But the now-disbanded Public Charter School Advisory Council unanimously voted in 2012 to not recommend Anderson Creek to the state board because the proposal didn’t rank as high as those from other applicants.

Levinson tried again last year after retooling the application. The response was more positive. Last June, the advisory council voted 7-3 to recommend approval.

Anderson Creek officials assured council members that they would market the school throughout the county. If there are more applicants than seats, a lottery will be held. The school is slated to serve 180 elementary school students.

“The word is out,” Shotz said. “We’re getting a tremendous response. When the names are pulled, who knows who it will be?”

School officials also assured the council they would reach out to low-income families, including providing the subsidized lunches that aren’t required for charter schools. They said they would also help those families with carpooling, with some money to be set aside for transportation.

But advisory council members were concerned about the plan to put the school inside the gate. According to minutes from the June council meeting, school officials said visitors would have to call in advance but that guards would be given the names of parents so that they could get through.

“The optics didn’t look good,” said Alan Hawkes, a charter school board president in Greensboro who served on the advisory council. “It’s a public school.”

Joel Medley, director of the Office of Charter Schools for the state Department of Public Instruction, said the State Board of Education accepted the council’s recommendation to make approval contingent on placing the school outside the gate. The school accepted the condition.

Anderson Creek Partners, the company that developed the community, will construct and finance a 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot facility and lease it back to the school. Levinson is president of Anderson Creek Partners.

Dollars per student

The school doesn’t have the backing of the Harnett County school board, which in April voted down a resolution supporting preliminary approval of Anderson Creek.

Frye, the Harnett superintendent, pointed to the potential impact on the district’s budget. The school is projected to receive $1.2 million in local, state and federal money this year that would have gone to the school systems in Harnett and Cumberland counties.

The Harnett County school system ranked 110th out of the state’s 115 school districts in per-pupil funding in the 2012-13 school year, according to state figures.

“We have a very low ranking with our current expense budget,” Frye said. “Those dollars are very much needed.”

Now that the school has gotten final approval, school leaders are going through all the steps necessary to open in August. To help out, Shotz said Ozie Hall resigned his position on the board of directors to serve as the school’s administrator.

Hall had been principal of Kinston Charter Academy when it closed in September amid financial issues and just as the state board was to vote on revoking the charter. Levinson and Shotz have defended Hall, saying they’re not holding the issues at Kinston Charter against him.

“He’s done a fine job, and he’s gotten us to where we are,” Shotz said.

Shotz said the long-term plan is to expand Anderson Creek to offer middle school and high school. Changes approved by the legislature last year allow successful charter schools to expand by one grade level a year without state approval.

Shotz said he wouldn’t be surprised if other developers emulate Anderson Creek’s charter efforts.

“I’m sure there will be other clones who will follow us after we’ve done it,” he said. “There have been other developers who’ve copied what we’ve done over the years.”

Cloning Anderson Creek’s charter is something that Hill, of the N.C. Justice Center, is hoping the state won’t be doing for other developers.

“I hope they’ll be diligent and not rubber-stamp anything,” he said. “We shouldn’t see a rash of approving schools for gated communities.”

But Stoops, of the Locke Foundation, said people are complaining about Anderson Creek only because it’s a gated community. He described the school’s start-up as the action of concerned parents who want what’s best for their children’s education.

“It’s not the gated community that’s getting the money,” he said. “It’s the school that’s getting the money.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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