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Schools: Prince George residents want to block charter school

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The board of the Coastal Montessori Charter School says it will move forward with plans to build a school on the Prince George property despite a threat from the Prince George Community Association to go to court to block the project.

“We’re going to move forward. We fully intend to build a school on that property,” said Scott Steffen, a charter school board member who took part in meetings with the Prince George association.

The school has a contract to buy 109 acres on the west side of Highway 17 from the University of South Carolina Development Foundation for $625,000. The foundation acquired the property in partnership with the Prince George development group. The private developers needed a non-profit entity in order to acquire the 1,934-acre tract from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in 1994. The foundation kept 1,200 acres, which it planned to use for educational programs. The rest was sold for residential development.

Wetlands and habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker will limit Coastal Montessori Charter School to 10 acres. It plans a 25,000 square foot facility and is seeking a $5 million loan from the federal Rural Development agency for the project.

Charter board members met with members of the Prince George Community Association last year. Steffen said the association was concerned about the size of the school and whether it would have an entrance from the residential development.

Scott Eaton, the association president, said the most recent meeting took place at his home. “It’s not that we’re against the school per se,” he said. “It’s the land use.”

“We’re not against kids getting an education,” he added.

Agreement between the Prince George developers and the USC Foundation limits the use of the 1,200 acres to education and conservation. The university once had plans for a Longleaf Environmental Learning Center on 10 acres west of Highway 17.

That was keeping with the original intent of the development, Eaton said.

“Recently, however, the USC Foundation has unilaterally moved to void these agreements and attempt to sell their interest in the undeveloped pristine property on the east side of U.S. 17 to an unknown developer,” he said.

The community association and the Coastal Conservation League have raised objections to the USC Foundation’s plans to sell the property between Highway 17 and Pawleys Creek for development. Russ Meekins, the foundation director, has said that’s a long-term goal.

“That’s why we reached out to them,” Steffen said. “We wanted to reassure them.”

Instead, the community association said it would go to court to enforce the restrictions placed on the USC property by the developers. “They say they have an assignment of rights from one interested party,” Steffen said. The community group refused to show the charter board members the document and Steffen said the association is not mentioned in any of the recorded documents pertaining to the property.

“We’re left in the unenviable position of having to guess what’s in their possession,” he said. “They said they could live with a school being there, but it had to be part of a larger agreement.”

In 2006, the Prince George Limited Partnership, which developed the residential area, assigned its rights to the Prince George Community Association. That included the developer’s rights under the agreement with the USC Foundation. The agreement was signed in June 2005 by John Trotter, the partnership president, but not recorded in the county courthouse for another six months.

Steffen said the charter school board doesn’t believe that applies to the property it wants to buy. He believes the Prince George association is using the school as leverage to get the USC Foundation to limit development on its remaining property east of Highway 17.

“Our disagreement is not with the Montessori school, but with the USC Foundation for attempting to alter the long established and well known agreement that all parties have endorsed,” Eaton said.

The Coastal Conservation League will challenge any development on the USC property between the highway and the creek, said Nancy Cave, director of the league’s North Coast office. “What we would like to do is sit down with the foundation and discuss a conservation solution,” she said.

The league won’t oppose the Coastal Montessori Charter School, she said, but she understood the community association’s position. “I think their understanding of the easements is different from the foundation’s,” Cave said.

Both Cave and Eaton said they have tried for months to schedule a meeting with the USC Foundation. “We are still hopeful that we will be able to resolve our differences with them,” Eaton said.

The Montessori school’s emphasis on the environment makes it an ideal owner of the Prince George property, Steffen said. “We couldn’t be more suited.”

The school will have to manage the red-cockaded woodpecker habitat and it plans to incorporate the natural and cultural history of the property in its curriculum.

The location is also important to the charter school because it wants to attract a more racially-diverse enrollment from the western portions of Georgetown County. Coastal Montessori is sponsored by the county school district and receives public funds for operations. The district operates under a consent order from the federal courts that stems from court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s. The U.S. Justice Department has to approve any new facilities and it has approved the Prince George site.

After meeting this week in a closed session to discuss the potential legal challenge, the charter school board created a committee to find an alternative plan for a facility in case it loses in court.

Steffen said a lawsuit would delay the school’s plans, which have already been pushed back a year because of the time it took to prepare the loan documents. The school will remain in a wing at Waccamaw Middle School where it opened in 2012. It currently has 161 students in grades one through six. It plans to add middle school classes when it opens its new facility.

The school district and Rural Development are aware of the possible delay. Steffen said it won’t affect the school’s plans.

“The reality is we’re talking about public education for people in Georgetown County. The people who lose from this are the kids,” he said.

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