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Education: Charter school urged to press feds for building approval

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

As the Coastal Montessori Charter School outlined plans for a $5 million project to build its own facility, the year-old school received a warning from district officials that the U.S. Department of Justice remains a potential hurdle.

The school will begin its second year of classes with 168 students in grades one through six in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School. It is seeking a low-cost federal loan to buy property at Prince George and build up to 25,000 square feet of classrooms and other space to accommodate 256 students through eighth grade.

Charter schools receive public funds, but have their own boards and are exempt from some state regulations. Coastal Montessori is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District. It completed environmental studies this summer on 100 acres it wants to buy from the USC Development Foundation. Wetlands and nesting habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker limit the buildable area to about 10 acres.

Kristin Bohan, the school’s founder and a member of the charter board, told the county school board that the preliminary loan application should be presented to the federal Rural Development agency in the next month. The documentation would fill a small suitcase, she said.

“Do you have another suitcase of papers ready for the Department of Justice?” School Board Chairman Jim Dumm asked.

The district operates under oversight from the Justice Department under the terms of court-ordered desegregation that dates to the 1970s. That includes approval of new school facilities.

The Justice Department urged the charter school to consider a site in Georgetown in order to draw a larger number of minority students. The charter board believes the Prince George site will serve that purpose while helping retain the students from Waccamaw Neck who make up the largest share of its enrollment.

Bohan said the charter board is relying on a December 2012 letter from a Justice Department attorney that says it “does not object” to the Prince George plan, but will continue to monitor the district for compliance with the desegregation order.

“It’s a little more than that,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said. “They letter they gave was tentative, weak approval.”

When students transfer within the district, it requires a “letter of approval” from the Justice Department, he said. Dozier urged the charter board to press the agency for something more concrete.

At the same time, the district has asked the Justice Department to end its supervision, giving the district what is known as “unitary status.” The process has been frustrating, Dozier said. Each time the district provides information to the department it receives a request for additional information.

“DOJ continues to hamper us,” Dozier said.

The district plans to renew its current request, first submitted in 2011, and Dozier said he would like to go to Washington to meet with Justice Department attorneys. He would like to take members of the charter board with him.

Dumm said the district supports the charter school. “We don’t want you to get your hearts broken,” he said.

Board Member Richard Kerr also suggested the charter school prepare “for the tree huggers” when they start work on the Prince George property. But Bohan told him that the environmental assessments done this summer didn’t show anything had changed much since the University of South Carolina foundation first acquired the property.

“We’re going to be able to build just fine,” Bohan said, although she added that a Rural Development official told the school “USC should be paying us to take the property off their hands.”

Kerr also asked if the charter school loan would affect the district borrowing capacity. “It’s not our loan,” Dozier said. “If they default, it may impact us.”

Bohan said she checked with the district’s attorney, who told her the district would have no liability for the charter school loan. “This is a question we asked,” she said.

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