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Education: Charter board optimistic about new facility

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The Coastal Montessori Charter School closed its first year of operation with a commencement ceremony last week, sending sixth-graders on to middle school and marking the third-graders’ move from lower- to upper-elementary classes.

Zoe Royal, who is leaving for middle school, said she never felt comfortable in school until she arrived at a Montessori school. “I realized that this is the way we are meant to learn,” she said in her commencement speech. “They taught me that, sure, education is important, but the most important thing you need to know is how to love and care for others. They taught me that working as one is great, but when you work together you can do anything.”

That notion is being tested as the school’s governing board works to secure a $5 million federal loan to build a permanent facility at the Prince George property. The school hopes to move into that facility in the fall of 2014.

Charter schools receive public funds but have their own board and are free from some state regulations. The Georgetown County School District is the sponsor for Coastal Montessori and leases the school space in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School.

The charter school has a contract to buy 109 acres at Prince George from the University of South Carolina Development Foundation for $625,000.

Because of wetlands and habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, there are only 10 acres that can be built upon.

The federal Rural Development agency has the school’s loan application. It now requires a feasibility study to show the school is capable of repaying the loan. While that’s being done, the school has hired consultants to mark the wetlands and endangered-species habitat and is awaiting approval of those studies by federal permitting agencies.

SGA Architecture is preparing a plan for the new school.

“The second funding is available, we’ll be ready,” said Kristin Bohan, the school founder and member of its board.

She estimates that it will take 10 months to build the school. That means breaking ground in October. “I look at August 2014 and work backward,” Bohan said.

She doesn’t know how long it will take to get the loan approved.

Rob Horvath, the charter board chairman, said he is encouraged by the progress of the Palmetto Academy of Learning and Success in Myrtle Beach, a charter that began construction in January on a building where it will hold classes in August. It’s building plan got state approval in 30 days, he said.

Coastal Montessori has already had informal discussions with the district about extending its lease at Waccamaw Middle. Superintendent Randy Dozier said he didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be extended.

But the charter school needs to move.

“We won’t be able to grow if we’re here a third year. We won’t have enough classrooms,” Bohan said.

The school opened with 144 students. This year, it will add a second upper elementary class for grades four through six and increase enrollment to 169. There are already over 20 students on the waiting list for next year.

Because state funding follows students, full enrollment has bolstered the school’s finances. “Financially, they’re in the top 5 percent. They’re solid,” said Bill Moser, a partner in Kelley-Moser Consulting, which works with close to 300 charter schools on financing.

Moser helped prepare the charter school’s $1.47 million budget for the coming year. That’s up 21 percent from the current budget.

The school district estimated last year that Coastal Montessori wouldn’t meet its enrollment target. It budgeted $540,000 for the school, money it passes on to the charter from the state. But through April, the district had already paid $669,772 to the charter.

The district has budgeted an additional $577,848 for the charter school in the budget that takes effect July 1. That brings spending to $1.12 million. A note on the district’s two-page budget says the figure “more accurately” reflects funds to Coastal Montessori.

The charter school expects to finish the year with $221,000 cash on hand. That will double under the new budget. Its goal is to build up a reserve equal to six months of operating expenses as a cushion against any changes in state funding formulas. It will also create a building fund.

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