Judge Rejects Group’s Charter School Appeal

August 27, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA state judge has rejected an appeal by a Richland County community group working to establish a charter school in rapidly growing Richland School District 2.

The grassroots group appealed to the state Administrative Law Court after the Richland 2 board of trustees in July 2009 denied the group’s application to create a charter school.

In an Aug. 9 written ruling, Administrative Law Judge John McLeod categorically rejected the group’s appeal. McLeod said the Richland 2 board acted correctly in unanimously concluding that the group’s application was deficient in numerous ways.

Those shortcomings included “the fact that the School had no existing facilities and no proposed facility had been identified” and “the proposal lacked an appropriate transportation plan, was not economically sound, failed to demonstrate adequate public support” and did not meet curriculum standards, the judge said in elaborating on the board’s decision.

“The Richland Two School Board’s consideration and findings of fact were constitutionally and statutorily appropriate and the (board’s decision-making) process violated none of Appellant’s rights,” McLeod wrote.

Leaders of the community group, however, contend that the school board went overboard in its requirements for their application. And they vow to press forward with their legal battle in hopes of setting a precedent to smooth the way for more charter schools in South Carolina.

“We don’t think we have any choice,” says Michael Letts, chairman of a planning committee that proposed the charter school. “If this is not challenged, it will be very difficult for South Carolina to have any charter schools.”

Although the case goes to the heart of an ongoing, often divisive debate about school choice across the state and nation, it has received little attention from other media outlets.

Sometimes confused with private schools that receive taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers, which do not exist in South Carolina, charter schools here must be approved at the state or local level.

They rely primarily on public funding, but cannot levy taxes, and are free from many rules and regulations that apply to traditional public schools. In return, charter schools must meet the same standards as their conventional counterparts.

For example, state standards for fourth-grade language arts call for students at that level to “read four major types of literary texts: fiction, literary nonfiction, poetry, and drama.” The options range from chapter books, adventure stories and fables to personal essays, biographical sketches and speeches.

There are 45 charter schools in the Palmetto State, according to the South Carolina Association of Public Charter Schools.

Both the state and federal governments have encouraged the growth of charter schools as a way to foster innovation and flexibility in education.

Last Friday, the S.C. Department of Education announced that the state has received a $5.7 million federal grant to open more charter schools.

“The grant-funded activities could result in up to 40 new high-quality charter schools opening over the next several years,” the agency said in a news release announcing the award.

Letts leads a group of parents in upscale northeast Richland County who hope to establish a year-round charter school in their community, aptly named Hope Academy Charter School.

Hope Academy would accommodate up to 400 elementary school students in its first year, then expand to serve middle and high school students in years two and three, respectively, according to Letts.

What about teachers?

“We have a pile of them that have already asked to apply,” he says.

Letts says the Hope Academy planning committee he chairs has 11 members who have identified two potential sites for the proposed charter school: one in The Summit neighborhood, the other on Clemson Road.

Both locations are in northeast Richland County, an area growing rapidly as reflected in Richland 2’s student population.

Last school year the district grew by nearly 750 students, or roughly one elementary school, and such an increase would not be unusual this academic year, Richland 2 spokeswoman Theresa Riley said in a previous report by The Nerve on the Hope Academy case.

The district’s enrollment total for this year will not be available until after the 11th school day of the 2010-11 academic calendar, Riley says. The school year began in Richland 2 on Aug. 19.

The district is in the midst of a $306 million construction spree in an effort to keep up with its student population growth.

Meanwhile, like most if not all districts across the state, Richland 2 has implemented cost-cutting measures to absorb unprecedented state funding reductions in the recession. Those steps include eliminating 22 teaching positions this year, according to Riley.

To represent the school board during the Hope Academy application process and appeal, the board hired external legal counsel – Michael Montgomery, a former Richland 2 board chairman and former Richland County councilman.

Montgomery’s services cost Richland 2 about $17,900, Riley said in an e-mail to The Nerve. “The district certainly regrets having to spend tax dollars to defend the Hope Academy appeal,” she said.

Attorney Kirby Shealy III of the Columbia law firm Baker, Ravenel & Bender represents the Hope Academy plaintiffs.

Letts says they aim to petition the S.C. Court of Appeals to hear their case. “I’ve got 400 families that want this,” he says, adding that 800 to 1,000 people signed a petition supporting the proposed charter school.

But legal expenses could be a barrier to the community group. The case has cost the plaintiffs upward of $20,000, and they must raise the money necessary to continue pursuing it, Letts says.

Their basis for advancing the appeal rests on a belief that the Richland 2 board went too far in its requirements for Hope Academy, significantly exceeding the necessary criteria defined in the S.C. Charter Schools Act of 1996.

“So if you can imagine local grassroots groups who just want to serve families,” says Stephen Gilchrist, a committee member and active advocate for school choice, “that’s not encouraging the opportunity for charter schools.”

In an interview Wednesday, Gilchrist said he would e-mail a copy of the Hope Academy application toThe Nerve. It did not arrive before The Nerve’s deadline to post this report.

Letts notes that the Charter School Advisory Committee, an arm of the State Board of Education charged with determining whether charter school applications meet the requirements of the 1996 law, signed off on the Hope Academy proposal.

But in his ruling, McLeod said, “The Charter School Act specifically provides that the decision of the Charter School Advisory Committee (CSAC) is not binding upon the ‘school board of trustees.’”

The judge also repeatedly affirmed assertions by the Richland 2 board that the Hope Academy application was too vague as to how it would meet the benchmarks set forth in the statute.

“The record does not reflect that the Richland Two Board acted in any way which increased the requirements of the Act,” McLeod wrote. “It merely acted responsibly in reviewing the application in detail. Appellant has no ground for appeal on that issue.”

But if that argument holds, Letts contends, then it subverts the will of the S.C. General Assembly per the Charter Schools Act.

Is he right?

McLeod spoke to the Legislature’s “vision for charter schools” in citing the introduction to the 1996 law.

It says in part, “The General Assembly seeks to create an atmosphere in South Carolina’s public school systems where research and development in producing different learning opportunities are actively pursued and where classroom teachers are given the flexibility to innovate and the responsibility to be accountable.”

Continuing, the preamble to the law says, “As such, the provisions of this chapter should be interpreted liberally to support the findings and goals of this chapter and to advance a renewed commitment by the State of South Carolina to the mission, goals, and diversity of public education.”

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.