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Schools: Justice Department approves charter campus at Prince George

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The U.S. Justice Department this week gave approval to Coastal Montessori Charter School to build a permanent facility at the Prince George property south of Pawleys Island.

That allows the charter school board to move forward with plans to negotiate with the University of South Carolina to acquire 10 acres at Prince George and obtain a $5 million loan from the federal Rural Development agency for the project.

Coastal Montessori opened in August in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School. It plans to be in a permanent facility by August 2014.

“I think we can do it, but …,” said Steve Goggans, whose firm, SGA Architects, has been hired to design the school. That “but” covers a range of contingencies.

Charter schools receive public funds, but have their own governing boards. Coastal Montessori required Justice Department approval for its building under a desegregation order from the federal courts that dates to 1970. The law requires charter schools to have an enrollment that is within 10 percent of the racial mix of the county school district as a whole, which is 50 percent white and 45 percent black. Coastal Montessori is 78 percent white.

The Justice Department recommended the charter school find a permanent home in the city of Georgetown, saying it would improve the racial balance. The charter board wants to improve the balance without losing the core support of parents on Waccamaw Neck who used to send their children to a private, all-white Montessori School at Pawleys Island.

“We are grateful that the [department] agreed that one of our top choices for our permanent facility would not hinder the district’s desegregation efforts,” said Kristin Bohan, a charter board member. “We want to be as easily accessible as possible to families on both sides of the bridge.”

USC got the Prince George property in a deal that allowed private developers to buy the land from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The university property is restricted to educational use. The proposed campus will be on 10 acres out of 140 on the west side of Highway 17. It’s 9 miles closer to Georgetown than Waccamaw Middle, but travel time will be even less because the area is mostly undeveloped.

The Justice Department, in a letter this week from Thomas Falkinburg, an attorney in the Civil Rights Division, noted that approval is based on the charter school continuing to provide transportation for students who need it. Funds from the state don’t pay charter schools for transportation, something state School Superintendent Mick Zais wants to change.

“Of course, this does not end the district’s ongoing desegregation obligations,” Falkinburg added. The department will continue to monitor the racial balance of students and staff.

While the approval was critical to the charter school plans, the ability to open the school on schedule will hinge on other federal agencies. There are endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers that nest on the property and most of the tract is wetlands, Goggans said. The nests need to be mapped and the maps approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The wetland locations must be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Both agencies have issued approvals in the past, and Goggans hopes renewals will not run into any delays. “I’m optimistic that we’ll get a pretty good response,” he said.

The design needs to be ready by June so it can be put out to bid in time to give a contractor 12 months to do the work. It could be built in less time, but that would be more expensive, Goggans said.

“Montessori facilities are different by design,” Bohan said. “So we will be asking ourselves questions like, ‘Which type of physical space best promotes the development of critical thinking skills?’ ”

The board started that process as it awaited Justice Department approval.

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