No lifeline for Charlotte’s Community Charter after pioneering merger plan falls apart

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to sell the historic school building that houses Community Charter School.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to sell the historic school building that houses Community Charter School.

A last-ditch effort to save one of Charlotte’s oldest charter schools has fallen apart, when a state panel decided Friday not to entrust more than $1 million a year in public money to an inexperienced and hastily formed takeover board.

Community Charter School in Charlotte’s historic Cherry neighborhood will close at the end of this school year, plagued by low test scores and dwindling enrollment. State officials had hoped it would be the first charter school saved by a new option for a successful existing charter school or chain to take it over.

Such an option could provide stability in the Charlotte region, which has seen an explosion of charter schools in recent years. A handful have been forced to close because of academic and/or financial troubles. Almost 17,000 Mecklenburg students attend charter schools, and enrollment in the independent public schools is growing much faster than that of traditional public schools across North Carolina.

Charlotte’s Community school almost got a lifeline from Community School of Davidson, a thriving charter 24 miles to the north (despite the similar names, the two schools aren’t connected).

The Davidson school had submitted a plan to keep the Cherry elementary school open, tapping its own long waiting list to help fill additional seats and eventually add middle school grades. But that plan hinged on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools agreeing to extend the school’s lease on the historic Morgan School building, which expires this year. CMS has announced plans to sell the building, and when the district couldn’t be swayed Community School of Davidson withdrew.

That left only one takeover proposal, from a for-profit management company that runs charter schools in Winston-Salem, Fayetteville and Raleigh. The proposal from Global Education Resources called for relocating Community Charter School to a new site on 24th Street, about 4 miles from its current location, where it would serve students attending Community as well as new recruits.

The proposal called for the new board to get $1.1 million in government money next year, most of it from the state, to serve 125 students, growing to $1.7 million for 200 students by 2019.

Members of the state’s Charter School Advisory Board said they were impressed by the management company’s work. But the takeover would also require a new governing board, and the panel was underwhelmed by the Charlotte board of directors.

Northside Community Outreach, an existing nonprofit group, made the application to take over Community School. Founder William Cherry’s bio describes him as a disabled Army veteran who has done church work to “help the needy and at-risk children.”

But on March 16, when that board made its first presentation to charter officials in Raleigh, the Northside board voted to dissolve itself and create a new board to run the charter school. On Friday, members of the Charter School Advisory Board voted unanimously against the takeover proposal, saying they didn’t believe the board of directors is ready to run a school.

That may be a setback for the faculty and students remaining at Community, though state officials said all but 11 of the 79 students have gotten seats in other charter schools for the coming year.

But charter school advocates say the takeover system remains promising.

Eddie Goodall, a longtime charter school advocate who is now a consultant, said scrutiny of applicants is an important part of that system: “The process worked despite the fact that they didn’t have a viable applicant.”

Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools, agreed: “I’m not happy that it didn’t work this time, but I feel like it is a viable option going forward.”

Katy Ridnouer, founder of Veritas charter school in Charlotte, said this instance could have been a success if CMS had been willing to work with the charter schools on a lease. Since getting a lease for one CMS building in 2015, only to have it revoked while she was doing renovations a few months later, Ridnouer has been a regular speaker at CMS board meetings, urging the district to work more cooperatively with charter schools to provide buildings.

Veritas, which is taking some of the displaced Community students next year, now has a five-year lease on a second CMS building, the former Tryon Hills prekindergarten center. She said that while CMS complies with the letter of the law requiring districts to provide available buildings for charter schools, “they make it so difficult and such an onerous task.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms