Disputed Durham charter school moves a step closer to opening

This is an artist’s rendering of Discovery Charter, a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM)-themed charter middle school proposed for Orange Factory Road.
This is an artist’s rendering of Discovery Charter, a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM)-themed charter middle school proposed for Orange Factory Road. Submitted

Despite two lawsuits and a letter of opposition from the Durham school board, the long-proposed Discovery Charter School in Durham moved closer to reality this week.

The N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board this week unanimously approved the school’s requests to operate out of temporary facilities at 1305 W. Club Blvd. in Durham and to begin classes with a reduced number of students. The request will go before the State Board of Education next month for approval.

The charter school was originally approved to open in northern Durham County, but that has been delayed twice because of lawsuits from potential neighbors. The school wanted to open there with 352 students and then increase enrollment to 528 students in the first two years.

Now, the charter school’s new location is nine miles south of the original site. It is asking to take on 200 students initially and grow to 528 within three years, because of the size of existing buildings at the new location.

Discovery intends to enroll students over the next few months and begin classes at the temporary facility in the fall.

According to Discovery school board Chairperson Carl Forsyth’s letter to the Charter Schools Advisory Board, this facility is ideal because it “is already approved for school use,” reaches the charter school’s “targeted northern Durham community” and has already been used by another charter school.

The new facility is not meant to become permanent. Forsyth’s letter affirms that the STEAM-based (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) middle school intends “to ultimately locate in northern Durham County in new facilities.”

The Charter Schools Advisory Board approved Discovery’s requests despite a letter from the Durham school board asking that they be denied. The Durham board asked the charter board to consider the fact that there are already two virtual and 15 brick and mortar charter schools operating within the district.

The letter also raised practical concerns, including a lack of student transportation, a lack of diversity on the charter school’s board, proximity to an existing middle school and the “two pending lawsuits based on their proposed location in an environmentally sensitive watershed.”

The letter references Discovery board meeting minutes to establish the ongoing legal battle. “The first case that was held last year has moved on to Appellate Court,” the letter said. “The 2nd case held in Superior Court in September has not been allowed to move forward because the judge in that case still has not signed the Order.”

Natalie Beyer Durham Public Schools

Durham school board member Natalie Beyer said she received no confirmation that Charter Schools Advisory Board members ever received the letter and is disappointed that they did not consider Durham board members’ concerns.

“These are not minor revisions to a charter school application. They’re major, material revisions to an application submitted three years ago,” Beyer said, adding that the school should have to start over on its application.

But Beyer said she is not surprised by the approval, because she thinks the Charter Schools Advisory Board “is largely filled with charter school proponents.”

“It’s like the fox guarding the hen house,” Beyer said.

She said she looks forward to taking the Durham school board’s concerns to the State Board of Education before its vote.

Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.