The founder of a startup charter school says Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is playing dirty by pulling the plug on a lease for Villa Heights school less than three months after saying the district didn’t need it.
In August, CMS reluctantly leased the vacant elementary school northeast of uptown Charlotte to Veritas Community School, a charter school that opened with about 100 kindergarten through third-grade students. CMS had been ready to sign a 10-year lease to let Junior Achievement use the school, but Veritas lawyer Richard Vinroot forced a change by citing a state law that he says gives charter schools first claim on such property.
Last week, after Veritas began expensive renovations, district officials notified Veritas they would evict the charter school in summer 2016. CMS now plans to use the 13-classroom school as an academy to help Garinger High students who have fallen behind.
The school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on terminating the lease – and Veritas faculty and families say they’ll be there to protest.
The dispute illustrates the complex relationship between North Carolina’s second-largest school district and the growing cluster of charter schools that compete with CMS for students and public money. Charter enrollment is growing rapidly across the state, with Charlotte seeing the biggest boom.
Veritas founder and head of school Katy Ridnouer doesn’t deny that CMS has the legal right to take back the school, which Veritas is using rent-free. But she and the school’s supporters hope to persuade the school board – and, failing that, Mecklenburg County commissioners – that letting Veritas stay is the right thing to do.
“This is not a legal decision,” she said Monday. “It’s an ethical decision.”
But CMS officials say they gave Ridnouer and her lawyers ample warning during summer lease negotiations that this could happen. The two parties wrangled over the November deadline for giving notice, emails released by CMS show, and CMS agreed to pay Veritas back for 90 percent of its renovation costs if the district pulled out after the first year.
That move will cost CMS an estimated $328,583.
“These provisions were highlighted throughout discussions with Veritas in good faith,” Superintendent Ann Clark said in a statement sent to the Observer on Monday evening. Turning Villa Heights into Garinger Academy is part of an ongoing push to boost graduation rates and high school success, she said.
CMS board member Eric Davis said the needs of district students have to come first.
“That doesn’t mean we’re trying to inflict any harm on the tenant,” Davis said. “We intend no harm to this charter school. We need charter schools to be successful for the students.”
Families balk at mosque
The dispute also highlights the challenge charter leaders face trying to find a building. The state’s charter system provides public money to educate the students, but no extra money for facilities.
Ridnouer, an educator and author whose three sons attend CMS, says she has always seen the east/northeast area of Charlotte as a great location to encourage racial and economic diversity in a school that emphasizes exercise, healthy eating and a peaceful environment.
But property isn’t cheap. Even working with the Challenge Foundation Academy, a national charter school network that helps with facility costs, the Veritas board struggled to find an affordable home.
In the spring of 2013, Ridnouer started asking CMS about Villa Heights, which had recently been closed. CMS had turned the school into offices, but Ridnouer says she was repeatedly assured that if it came open, CMS would let her know.
Finally, the Veritas board signed a lease with the Muslim American Society of Charlotte on Shamrock Drive to get classroom space for $240,000 a year. As public schools, charter schools can’t have a religious affiliation but can use space at houses of worship.
But Ridnouer says the perception that Veritas would be a Muslim school discouraged enrollment.
In spring 2015, Veritas leaders discovered that Villa Heights was vacant – and that CMS had offered Junior Achievement a 10-year, rent-free lease to use the school for its business-education classes and summer programs.
In a memo sent to CMS board members Monday, lawyer Kevin Bringewatt describes Junior Achievement as “a long-time partner of CMS” and said the classes held at Villa Heights would have served about 10,000 CMS fourth-graders. Bringewatt represents CMS on real estate matters, including the Veritas negotiations.
Veritas brought in Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor and charter school advocate. Vinroot told CMS lawyers that North Carolina law requires school districts to lease available buildings or land to charter schools that request such space.
Vinroot warned that “CMS may now have some liability to Veritas” for failing to inform the charter board that Villa Heights was open. Junior Achievement pulled out when litigation was threatened, according to Bringewatt’s memo.
Veritas paid the Muslim society $190,000 to terminate that lease and began negotiating with CMS.
The lease between CMS and Veritas provides Villa Heights rent-free, after a $5,000 security deposit, until June 2025 but allows CMS to take the building back by providing notice in November that it will reclaim the building at the end of the school year.
“CMS does not anticipate a need for this site and will benefit by Veritas Community School’s planned improvements and maintenance of the entire facility,” CMS officials wrote in a July report to county commissioners, who had to approve the arrangement.
In August, about the time CMS gave final lease approval, Veritas opened in temporary classrooms at Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church. It has 100 students, half the number Ridnouer had planned for in her application.
Bait and switch?
Ridnouer says she repeatedly asked Bringewatt and Peggy Hey, the CMS official in charge of property, whether the lease was being offered in good faith. It was only after repeated assurances that CMS had no immediate designs on the school, Ridnouer says, that she signed the lease and began renovations.
But Bringewatt’s memo highlights emails he sent to Vinroot emphasizing the possibility that CMS would reclaim the school. In a June email Bringewatt noted that a high school principal already wanted to use the building, saying that illustrated the chance that eviction “could reasonably come up for consideration on fairly short notice.”
In July, Bringewatt emailed Ridnouer’s lawyers that he had repeatedly expressed concerns that “the Tenant does not have realistic business expectations” and that she “is making business decisions that I would characterize as risky to Tenant’s own interests.”
Ridnouer said Monday her board has spent $259,000 upgrading Villa Heights, with the biggest cost for a sprinkler system required to bring the 1975 building up to modern safety codes for a school. The plan calls for the movers to haul classroom supplies from the church to Villa Heights in December, with students moving in second semester.
Ridnouer says breaking news of the CMS eviction notice to Veritas families “feels like bait and switch,” after saying the cramped quarters at the church were only for one semester. Over the weekend, Veritas faculty, parents and students made signs and prepared a protest for Tuesday, when the CMS board is scheduled to vote on terminating the lease at the end of the school year.
If that fails, Ridnouer says, Veritas will appeal to county commissioners, as state law allows.
“I still see it as my building,” Ridnouer said, “and we’re going to fight for it.”
Want to go?
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. It is open to the public and can be watched live online or on CMS-TV Cable 3. For the agenda, video streaming and instructions on signing up to speak, go to www.cms.k12.nc.us/boe/Pages/SchoolBoardMeetings.aspx