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Education: Charter board drops plan for school at Prince George

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Coastal Montessori Charter School has abandoned plans to build its own facility on a portion of the Prince George tract near Pawleys Island rather than face a possible lawsuit from the neighbors. The charter school board last week made an offer for a commercial parcel at the entrance to Allston Plantation less than a mile north on Highway 17. “We don’t want to mess with them or USC and be a pawn in whatever they’re up to,” said Scott Steffen, a charter board member involved in the transaction.

The University of South Carolina Development Foundation owns 1,200 acres at Prince George, a part of 1,934 acres between the Atlantic Ocean and the Waccamaw River it helped acquire for a private developer in 1994. The charter school had a contract to buy 109 acres west of Highway 17 from the foundation and build a campus on 10 acres. The Prince George Community Association, which represents the owners of residential property, said the sale would violate restrictions placed on the property in 1994 that limit its use to conservation, research and environmental education.

=The property at Prince George the charter school planned to buy for $625,000 was restricted by wetlands and endangered wildlife habitat.

The 7-acre commercial tract at Allston Plantation is on the market for $895,000. It sold in 2006 for $611,705, according to property records. Even if the school pays more for the land, it will pay less for infrastructure because utilities are already in place, Steffen said.

“We shed a lot of costs,” he said. “We don’t think there are any environmental issues.”

Charter schools receive state funding, but have their own boards and are free from some regulations. Coastal Montessori is seeking a $5 million loan from the federal Rural Development agency to buy property and build a 25,000-square-foot school. It opened last year in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School.

With its own building, the school plans to expand from grades one through six to include seventh- and eighth-grade classes. The charter board offered guarantees to the Prince George Community Association that it would not build a high school or other facilities and that the neighbors could have a role in managing the balance of the 109 acres. The offer was rebuffed by the association’s lawyers, Steffen said. “The time and expense were more than we could afford,” he said.

Coastal Montessori is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District, which operates under oversight from the U.S. Justice Department that stems from court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s. The Justice Department offered no objection to the proposed school at Prince George, but has not approved the new site.

Both attorneys for the Justice Department and some school board members have suggested the school move to Georgetown in order to attract a greater number of minority students. The charter board hopes the location on the southern end of Waccamaw Neck will attract students from the county’s rural areas as well as those from Waccamaw Neck who make up the majority of its current enrollment.

“We’re trying to move real fast,” Steffen said. “We have to get Justice to approve the move. That’s the biggest time issue.”

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