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Schools: Charter founder tells Haley funds needed for facilities

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The biggest challenge facing charter schools is the lack of funding for facilities, the founder of Coastal Montessori Charter School told Gov. Nikki Haley last week.

In the year since Coastal Montessori opened in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School, Kristin Bohan has worked to get funds to build a permanent facility. She’s now awaiting approval of environmental studies for a site at the Prince George property that the school hopes to buy from the USC Development Foundation. But that hinges on a loan from the federal Rural Development agency.

Bohan was among a group of charter school leaders who met with the governor last week. “She was really interested in listening,” Bohan said.

Charter schools receive public funding for operations, but have independent boards and are exempt from some state regulations. Coastal Montessori is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District.

Haley, who is up for re-election in 2014, has been meeting with a range of education groups to assemble a reform plan. She supports school choice plans that would allow public funds to follow students wherever they enroll. While those funds follow charter school students, the funds don’t include money for transportation or buildings.

Coastal Montessori hopes to get a $5 million low-interest federal loan to buy property at Prince George and build up to 25,000 square feet of classrooms and other space to accommodate up to 256 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The loan is part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that funds community facilities.

“We’ll be paying $21,000 a month for 40 years to pay back the USDA,” Bohan said. And that money will come from funds apportioned by the state for school operations. “There are a lot of states where charter schools have parity with public schools” on construction funds.

Once the environmental studies are approved, the school’s loan application will be reviewed in Columbia and Washington, D.C. The school’s contract to buy 109 acres at Prince George for $625,000 expires next month. Rob Horvath, who chairs the charter board, believes the USC Foundation will extend the contract based on the progress the school has made toward getting the loan. “They’ve always said we could extend it,” he said.

“We ended up picking a piece of property that has every environmental issue possible,” Bohan said.

The foundation acquired the property from the Prince George property developers. Building is limited to 10 acres because of wetlands and nesting sites for red-cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species. Deed restrictions further limit the property’s educational uses.

The Coastal Montessori board says the site is ideal because it will move the school closer to Georgetown and encourage more minority students to enroll. The district operates with oversight from the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure compliance with a court-ordered desegregation ruling that dates to the 1970s. The department has said it won’t object to the Prince George site, but it will continue to monitor the charter school’s minority enrollment. The state charter law requires the racial mix at the school to be within 10 percent of racial mix in the district as a whole – about 45 percent black and 50 percent white – or show it is making a good-faith effort to achieve that goal.

Coastal Montessori’s enrollment is predominantly white, and Bohan said that will be hard to change until it moves into its new facility, a move planned for next August.

The open enrollment period for the school begins next month and Nathalie Hunt, who took over as director this year, said she is working to increase the school’s exposure in Georgetown. She is considering setting up a model classroom in a public space so people can see what goes on in the child-centered Montessori environment.

The biggest challenge to recruitment, Bohan said, is that many people still believe charter schools are private schools.

Others believe they have specialized entrance criteria like magnet schools.

“We really need to let parents know it’s free,” she said.

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