After almost three hours of debate and public commentary, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted 7-2 Tuesday to take back a building it had leased to Veritas charter school just three months before.
The vote makes it unclear whether the charter school, temporarily housed in a church while the Villa Heights building is upgraded, will ever get to move in. Veritas supporters have said they’ll appeal the school board’s decision to Mecklenburg County commissioners.
Superintendent Ann Clark and board members insisted their move to reclaim the school isn’t designed to undermine Veritas, which serves about 100 kindergarten through third-grade students, but to create a new academy that will boost graduation rates at Garinger High starting in August 2016.
“We have the opportunity to serve the immediate needs of Garinger High School,” Clark said.
Parents, students and board members from Veritas Community School, which opened in August, showed up en masse bearing “Honor Your Commitment” signs, hoping to persuade the board not to end the school’s lease for Villa Heights, which used to be a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools elementary school.
Veritas opened in temporary space at Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church, after using legal pressure to get the Villa Heights lease. The charter board has begun renovating the school and hopes to move students in for the second semester.
The year-to-year lease provides the building rent-free for up to 10 years, but gives CMS the right to take it back for the district’s use at the end of each school year. The lease also calls for CMS to reimburse Veritas for 90 percent of expenses to upgrade the building, such as adding a sprinkler system.
Board member Paul Bailey moved to pay 100 percent, a cost estimated at $350,000 to $400,000, as a gesture of goodwill. That plan got a 7-2 vote, with Tom Tate and Ruby Jones opposing the lease termination. Clark said CMS would have had to pay for the upgrades anyway when it prepared the vacant building to accept students.
Veritas board Chair Barbara Parrish said her group studied CMS long-range plans and other documents before signing the lease and found no sign that CMS planned to use the building. “We acted in nothing but good faith and honesty and integrity,” she said.
Several Veritas speakers urged board members to see charter schools as partners in public education, not competition for students and money. “What I see as possible is that we start uniting and working together for the future,” said parent Tracy Mott.
Jill Vandewoude, president of the Villa Heights Community Organization, says residents of the neighborhood northeast of uptown Charlotte have mixed views about use of the school. A recent poll found 48 percent want a neighborhood elementary school, 39 percent want Veritas to stay and only 3 percent like the idea of an academy for at-risk high school students.
Clark told the board that Villa Heights might eventually become a neighborhood elementary school, but for now there’s an “immediate need” to use it as a site for up to 200 Garinger students to get online and personal instruction to get on track to graduate. She said creation of the academy, which will be modeled on a Project LIFT Academy for West Charlotte High, is part of the district’s Beacon Initiative to improve low-performing schools.
The board is also scheduled to vote on student assignment changes for 2016-17, while continuing a broader review of magnets, boundaries and other issues for coming years. The immediate proposals include expanding the transportation options for magnet students and making changes to a handful of programs.
The magnet busing plan, which offers families a choice of neighborhood stops or “shuttle stops” at centrally located schools, is expected to add $6 million to next year’s transportation budget. That tally, which Clark initially described as a maximum cost, is now labeled an “initial conservative estimate.”
Parents of Montessori magnet students have been lobbying Clark to add a ninth-grade class at Sedgefield Middle School’s Montessori program next year. That wasn’t added to the plan Tuesday, but parent Dara Whittle said they’re still hoping it can be approved in December.
Families from Collinswood Language Academy, a K-8 Spanish-English magnet school, continued an ongoing push for relief from crowding. Collinswood isn’t part of the 2016-17 plan, and Collinswood parent Virginia Spykerman said she understands changes to buildings can take years. She and other speakers asked for a “quick win” by giving the middle school students a chance to play competitive sports next year.
The CMS board’s policy committee meets at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in Room 528 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St., to discuss student assignment principles. The meeting is open to the public. It is not televised live, but video will be posted later at www.cms.k12.nc.us/boe/Pages/SchoolBoardMeetings.aspx