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Charter school: Effort to acquire property includes charm offensive

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The Coastal Montessori Charter School and the University of South Carolina Development Foundation are $400,000 apart on a proposal to buy a permanent site for the school at the Prince George tract, charter board members say.

Priding themselves on problem-solving skills, the Montessori school board put their heads together before reaching for their wallets. Board members say they hope to launch a charm offensive to help close the gap.

“Pulling on their heart strings,” is how Chris Bird, a charter school board member, explained it to parents last week. The USC foundation acquired over 1,200 acres as part of a deal that allowed the private development of the Prince George property. The foundation and the Prince George Limited Partnership outbid Georgetown County and a developer from Hilton Head when the property was put up for sale by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The charter school opened this year in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School. Charter schools receive public funds but have their own boards and are exempt from some state regulations.

Although the charter board hasn’t said what its offering price was, the land is included in a $5 million loan proposal to the federal Rural Development agency. It wants to buy 10 acres on the west side of Highway 17, part of a 131-acre parcel.

“They really want to sell the whole thing,” said Kristin Bohan, a charter school board member. “We only want to buy the part you can build on.”

The property is restricted to educational use. USC originally planned an environmental education center for its holdings at Prince George, which extend to Pawleys Creek on the east side of Highway 17.

The site is ideal for the charter school because it wants to be able to attract minority students from the Georgetown area to meet the requirements of a federal desegregation order and to provide a diverse enrollment. The U.S. Department of Justice, which must approve public school construction in Georgetown County, approved the Prince George site after urging the charter school to move into Georgetown.

“We will be in a sweet position” at Prince George, Bird said. It’s actually closer to Georgetown than Murrells Inlet.

The charter school parents will be asked to call and write to the USC foundation. The school is also considering creating a video that will help explain the school to the foundation.

Paying more for the property isn’t an option because its appraised value will be considered in the Rural Development loan, Bohan said.

While public funds follow Coastal Montessori students from other public schools, the charter school doesn’t get money for construction or transportation.

To pay for the permanent facility, the school will need to raise its enrollment to around 200 students, said Lonnie Yancsurak, the school director.

Coastal Montessori opened with 147 students in six mixed-age classes. It plans to add 20 students in the fall.

Plans for the permanent building include adding a primary class and a middle school class. It hopes to have a high school graduating class in 2020.

“The school’s going to grow and it’s going to grow pretty quickly,” Yancsurak said.

It hopes to open a new school in August 2014. But the longer negotiations over the property continue, the harder that will be. There are wetlands and red-cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species, that have to be accounted for in planning the building, according to Steve Goggans, principal in SGA Architecture, who is working with the charter school.

Bird hopes to wrap up negotiations in 30 days.

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