Mecklenburg County commissioners have been tapped to referee a dispute between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Veritas charter school over a 40-year-old vacant elementary school.
Veritas Community School says it needs the former Villa Heights Elementary School as a home for 100 kindergarten through third-grade students who are learning healthy eating, physical fitness and peaceful classroom techniques along with academics.
CMS says it wants the building as an alternative setting for Garinger High students who have fallen behind. In a long, emotional meeting Tuesday, the school board pulled the plug on Veritas less than three months after signing the lease.
Now county officials are trying to figure out what the state expects of them.
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In 2013, state lawmakers revised an existing charter school law to give county commissioners the final say in this kind of dispute. The law doesn’t spell out what kind of process county officials should use or how they should make their decision, and Mecklenburg appears to be the first place to test the system.
“I think we’re going to have to struggle our way through this,” said County Attorney Marvin Bethune, who was researching the law Friday and hoping to get CMS and Veritas founder Katy Ridnouer to agree to “as orderly a process as possible.”
Ridnouer, an educator and CMS parent, brought a crowd of supporters to Tuesday’s school board meeting, hoping to persuade members not to terminate the lease. She conceded that the year-to-year, rent-free lease, which runs through 2025, gives CMS the right to take its building back at the end of the school year, but argued that exercising the option was the wrong thing to do for students.
CMS, which closed Villa Heights as an elementary school in 2011, used it as office space for a few years. This past spring it was prepared to give the nonprofit Junior Achievement a 10-year lease to use the school for business classes that would benefit CMS fourth-graders.
The Veritas board, struggling to find affordable space for the charter school, hired lawyer Richard Vinroot, a charter school advocate and former Charlotte mayor, to challenge that arrangement. Citing a state law that requires school districts to lease unused space to charter schools “unless the board demonstrates that the lease is not economically or practically feasible or that the local board does not have adequate classroom space to meet its enrollment needs,” Vinroot threatened legal action.
Junior Achievement backed away and CMS approved the Veritas lease in August, with the charter school opening in temporary classrooms at a church. As part of the lease review process, CMS staff told county officials in July that “CMS does not anticipate a need for this site.”
On Nov. 4, CMS notified Vinroot that it would ask the school board to terminate the lease in summer 2016. Superintendent Ann Clark said that Garinger’s principal had asked for an off-site academy to boost graduation rates and staff concluded that Villa Heights was the best location. The board voted 7-2 to serve notice to Veritas.
Time is of the essence because Veritas’ future hinges upon this decision.
Charter school founder Katy Ridnouer
On Friday, Ridnouer emailed county commissioners asking them to hear her appeal on Tuesday. She said “time is of the essence” because Veritas is renovating Villa Heights and planning to move in on Dec. 19.
Ridnouer also told Bethune she won’t be represented by lawyers during the appeal because legal representation has come “at great expense,” using public money that could be spent educating students. Because CMS and charter schools are both publicly funded, taxpayers foot both sides of the bill in such legal battles.
Bethune said next week’s agenda is already set, and County Manager Dena Diorio declined to add the Veritas appeal. That likely pushes the county’s decision into December.
CMS must show me that there are no other options available and that they have placed charter schools above other community uses for CMS buildings.
County Commissioner Bill James
Within hours of the school board’s Tuesday night vote, Bethune emailed county commissioners alerting them to the likelihood of an appeal and asking them to avoid taking positions beforehand: “I urge board members not to talk with anyone (even among yourselves) or e-mail anyone (even among yourselves) about this matter.”
But commissioner Bill James emailed commissioners, Ridnouer and reporters to outline his views. James said he believes state law specifies that charter schools “get first ‘dibs’ so to speak if CMS has determined (facilities) are not needed.” He said that means that for him to uphold the lease termination, CMS must persuade him that the district had no other viable options for Garinger Academy.
“Clearly NC law provides priority in leasing to charters over general community uses,” James wrote. “There are lots of possible solutions that don’t kick a charter school to the curb.”