Education

CMS dispute with charter school continues, but county leaders hope for compromise

Veritas charter school founder Katy Ridnouer outside the old Villa Heights school, which is at the heart of a dispute between Veritas and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Veritas charter school founder Katy Ridnouer outside the old Villa Heights school, which is at the heart of a dispute between Veritas and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

After much debate and back-and-forth, Mecklenburg County commissioners Tuesday decided to delay hearing arguments between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Veritas Community School for two weeks. But they hope the two sides can reach a compromise before then.

In an unprecedented move, commissioners were slated to determine whether CMS should be allowed to reclaim the vacant Villa Heights elementary school building that it leased to the charter school three months ago.

Instead, acting on requests filed by CMS and Veritas, the board agreed that Commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller can call another special meeting Dec. 15 if the conflict is not resolved by Dec 10.

“We should not be in the position of mediating disputes between lawyers,” Fuller said.

Veritas founder Katy Ridnouer last month appealed to commissioners using an untested state law after the school board voted to back out of the lease. The year-to-year lease would have provided the 40-year-old building northeast of uptown rent-free for 10 years.

Last week, CMS and Veritas asked commissioners to delay the hearing until Dec. 15, saying they were still trying to work out a solution. That came at the same time the school board made what Fuller called an “inappropriate” threat to file a lawsuit that would have asked a judge to rule on whether the county has jurisdiction to hear the dispute.

The tiff between CMS and Veritas has played out for weeks now in a series of emails, letters and closed-door meetings. It has grown tense as CMS continues to challenge whether the county can legally referee the conflict.

Asheville lawyer Chris Campbell, who is helping to represent CMS in the dispute, said the lawsuit wasn’t a threat but notice of a request for a “declaratory judgment” on the county’s role in the fight.

News that CMS planned to ask commissioners to consider the jurisdiction issue prompted Ridnouer early Tuesday to rescind her request to delay the hearing. She changed course again after extensive talks with the school district, said Veritas lawyer Nicole Gardner.

“I believe there is good will on both sides,” Gardner said.

Veritas, which has operated in a church since its August opening, is renovating Villa Heights in hopes of using it as a long-term school for its 100 K-3 students, and eventually fourth- and fifth-graders. It has garnered support from the Villa Heights neighborhood association.

CMS exercised its option to terminate the lease this summer and turn the building into alternative space for Garinger High School students who have fallen behind. Lawyers for both sides told commissioners they were optimistic they could broker an agreement by the Dec. 10 deadline.

But as she pressed lawyers about costs of a legal battle, Democratic Commissioner Vilma Leake called for CMS and Veritas to settle the dispute immediately.

“The longer we delay this, the longer it’s going to take for the settling of the facility and getting everything in place for the children,” she said.

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

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