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Uncertainty on 2014 charter schools continues

By T. Keung Hui And Ann Doss Helms
khui@newsobserver.comahelms@charlotteobserver.com

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RALEIGH A charter school advisory council Monday added a Mecklenburg County charter-school application to a long list of proposals that could be sidelined by flawed paperwork.

The Public Charter School Advisory Council is still considering whether incomplete applications should bar would-be operators from a chance to open independent public schools in 2014-15. The N.C. Office of Charter Schools rejected 27 of 69 applications statewide, zeroing in on what some call minor errors.

At Monday’s meeting, the council held off on deciding whether those 27 should get a second chance, but said their own review turned up two more that have flaws. They plan to decide Tuesday what to do about all of them.

“I certainly don’t want to turn away a good application that would do a good job of educating children,” said John Betterton, chairman of the council. “But there are a lot of pitfalls out there that we’ll end up in.”

At this point, four of 19 applications for Mecklenburg County schools have been flagged as incomplete, as well as five of 10 applications to open schools in surrounding counties.

Officials have scrutinized applications more carefully this year after being stung by the revelation that one Charlotte application they approved for a 2013 opening appeared to have been cut and pasted from an application they’d rejected the year before, even repeating the other school’s name several times. The state Board of Education, which has the final say, withdrew the charter in March based on the plagiarized paperwork.

Now lawmakers and education officials are wrangling over the best way to ensure education quality and fiscal responsibility at charter schools, which are public schools that do not report to local school boards. Charters have more flexibility in some operations, such as hiring, firing and setting school calendars.

The situation has drawn the attention of state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who council member Alan Hawkes said had asked him to do what he can to hear out the rejected charter applicants.

Berger and other key Republican lawmakers are considering legislation that would create a new board to govern charter schools, in the process eliminating the Public Charter School Advisory Council and reducing the authority of the state Board of Education over those schools. The bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee last week.

In February, the advisory council gave the Office of Charter Schools several suggestions to help determine which applications would be considered incomplete and dropped from consideration. Betteron said the council wanted to tighten up the screening process.

The rejection letters cite reasons such as not submitting hard copies to go along with the electronic application; not having all board members sign documents; not including an organizational chart; not including a copy of the school calendar, and reporting a budget deficit.

“We did everything we could to be as consistent and fair as possible to make these difficult decisions,” said Joel Medley, director of the Office of Charter Schools.

But some council members said applicants were rejected for immaterial reasons.

For instance, the Office of Charter Schools rejected all four applications from Norman George of Raleigh because he didn’t include a copy of the calendar he’d use, even though he said they’d use the calendar of the school district they’re located in.

Hawkes also said that there should be a difference between a school that reports a deficit of $561 and one that’s more than $800.000.

Medley said the issue has received so much scrutiny that his office re-examined all the applications, included the ones that were approved. He told Betterton on Monday that James K. Polk Public School in Mecklenburg County and Davidson Charter Academy in Davidson County should not have passed the initial screening.

Betterton said the council will decide Tuesday whether to still consider those two schools.

Hui: 919-829-4534
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