NC charter board approves 11 schools, rejects most applicants

ahelms@charlotteobserver.com khui@newsobserver.comMay 13, 2014 

Eleven of the 71 North Carolina charter-school applicants who filed to open independent public schools in 2015 got the go-ahead from a screening board Tuesday, a significant drop from the previous year.

The N.C. Charter School Advisory Board recommended approval of five of the 18 applicants from the Triangle area – including a school that could become the first statewide online charter school.

Those local applicants are PAVE Southeast Raleigh Charter School in Wake County, Youngsville Academy in Franklin County and three Durham-based schools – Excelsior Classical Academy, KIPP Durham and the N.C. Connections Academy. But N.C. Connections Academy would be a virtual school open to students from all counties.

State board must approve

The state Board of Education has the final say on which private nonprofit boards will be authorized to get public money, but that board generally follows the advisory board’s recommendations.

“We really went out of our way to make sure that we were recommending schools that could take off and do well,” said advisory board member Cheryl Turner, director of Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte. “There are some very innovative schools coming.”

But Eddie Goodall, a Union County charter-school advocate and former state senator, says the board went too far in rejecting applications.

“We are all kind of in a daze at the proclivity for saying ‘no’ from this charter board,” said Goodall, president of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.

There have been questions about how much charter schools would grow since a 100-school limit was lifted in 2011.

There are 126 charter schools open in North Carolina. In January, the state board gave final approval to 26 new charter schools to open this year. But some of the approved schools are requesting permission to wait until next year to open.

Last year, the General Assembly replaced the old advisory panel with a new group of advisers, most of them charter school officials from around the state.

This is the first year that group reviewed applications.

Of the 71 applications filed in December, nine were rejected as incomplete.

Rejections not a ‘precedent’

The rest were screened by the 11-member advisory board, staff from the state Office of Charter Schools and consultants.

Turner, who also served on the previous advisory panel, says the new group didn’t set out to slow the pace of charter-school expansion.

“I wouldn’t call this a precedent,” she said.

But she said the new board was stricter about winnowing out applications that have significant weaknesses.

StudentFirst Academy, a west Charlotte charter school whose April closing left about 300 students to find new schools, won approval last year even though the previous board rated several aspects of the application inadequate, Turner said.

This time, Turner said, “people that had significant ‘inadequates’ didn’t go anywhere.”

“We were all very aware of the StudentFirst problem,” Turner said.

Some local and state officials, including Gov. Pat McCrory, have voiced concerns about quality control for charter schools.

The advisory board was so strict that the state board approved last month a process for rejected applicants to request reconsideration.

Goodall said the advisory board seemed intent on eliminating applicants that didn’t plan to offer busing or meals. State law gives charter schools that flexibility, but critics say that lets charters weed out low-income students.

Turner, whose school does provide busing and meals, said the board asked about transportation and meal plans but didn’t eliminate schools based on that.

Buses, meals at issue

Among the schools that were recommended, PAVE Southeast Raleigh organizers said they would provide bus service and meals to the largely low-income population they’re targeting.

J.B. Buxton, the education adviser to former Gov. Mike Easley and a former deputy state schools superintendent, would be chairman of the school’s board of directors.

The proposed new schools could cause more challenges to the public schools in Durham, where 10 charter schools are already open.

School leaders there, including some charter school operators, have urged the state not to approve any more charters in the county.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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