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Education: Charter school pitches diversity to Justice Department

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Coastal Montessori Charter School is preparing an offer to the University of South Carolina to buy 10 acres at the Prince George tract for a permanent facility. But its efforts hinge on approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, which has recommended the school move from Pawleys Island to Georgetown.

“That school could be the most racially diverse in the county,” Rob Horvath, chairman of the charter school board, said of the proposed school. That’s the argument the board made to the Justice Department in a letter this month.

Though charter schools have their own boards, they operate with public funds. Coastal Montessori is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District, which is under federal oversight as the result of court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s. The Justice Department has to approve all public school facilities.

The charter school wants to fund the land and building with a $5 million loan from the Rural Development agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It has received proposals from planners and expects to hire SGA Architecture. Steve Goggans, principal in the firm, was hired by the board in August to do some preliminary work on the project.

The school is working with the USC Development Foundation on the land deal. The property was acquired by the foundation in partnership with the developers of Prince George after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. foreclosed on a previous developer. The foundation trumped a bid from Georgetown County and a Hilton Head developer to buy the property.

The 10 acres on which the charter school hopes to build are west of Highway 17 and restricted to educational use.

“There will be a lot of contingencies,” Horvath said. “One is obviously that the loan go through.”

The charter board has received information from the university foundation about environmental issues, such as nesting site for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. “They didn’t say ‘you’re crazy,’ ” Horvath said.

The charter board hopes to have a deal early in 2013 and start construction in time to open the new school in August 2014. Coastal Montessori opened this year in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School. It has a two-year lease with the school district.

The Justice Department approved the opening of the school, but told the Georgetown County School District in October that it “recommends” moving the school to the city of Georgetown in order to increase the mix of black and white students. The charter school is 78 percent white and the state charter school law requires it to be within 10 percent of the racial mix of the district as a whole, which is 50 percent white.

The charter school argues that locating a permanent facility at Prince George will enable the school to maintain the support of the families who moved their children from the private Pawleys Island Montessori School and recruit minority students from Georgetown.

“In Georgetown, the school won’t exist,” Horvath said.

The charter board asked the Justice Department for a reply by Nov. 30 so it can move forward with its plans for a new facility.

In the meantime, the school is enrolling new students for 2013. The school was approved for 145 students in the first year, and 167 in the second year. The growth will come through the addition of an “upper elementary” class of fourth- through six-graders.

The school will hold information sessions at the county’s four public libraries and Teach My People, an after-school center at Pawleys Island.

If all the current students return in 2013, there will be space for 32 first-grade students and five fourth-graders. But the director, Lonnie Yancsurak, said its likely there will be some places available in all grades and the school will encourage children to enroll. A lottery will be held in January to determine the order in which vacancies are filled.

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