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Schools: Justice Department approves new charter school site
By Charles Swenson
The U.S. Justice Department won’t object to a plan by Coastal Montessori Charter School to build a permanent facility on Highway 17 south of Pawleys Island, according to an agency attorney. But the department still believes that moving the school closer to Georgetown would help increase the number of minority students in its enrollment.
The decision will allow the charter school board to move forward with environmental assessments on 7.9 acres at the entrance to Allston Plantation that it has under contract for $695,000. The school is seeking a $5 million federal loan to buy the land and build a 25,000-square-foot building.
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, which operates under Justice Department supervision to ensure compliance with a desegregation order from the federal courts. That oversight requires the department to approve construction of the new school.
Thomas Falkinburg, an attorney in the Civil Rights Division, met with school and district staff on a visit to the county last month. He seemed impressed that the proposed school site had infrastructure in place and easy access to Highway 17, said Nathalie Hunt, the charter school director. Falkinburg said he wasn’t able to comment on the details of his visit.
Coastal Montessori initially wanted to build on a portion of the Prince George tract, about half a mile closer to Georgetown, but abandoned that deal after objections from adjacent property owners. The Justice Department didn’t object to the Prince George site and in a letter to the district last week Falkinburg said it “is not aware of any circumstance that requires a change in the position” for the new site.
But he noted the department “believes that locating the charter school nearer the city of Georgetown is preferable because it will increase the likelihood of a diverse student enrollment at the charter school because of the more central location.”
Of the 160 students at the school, currently housed in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle, 9 percent are black.
“Our goal is to reflect the demographic of Georgetown County within our walls,” Kristin Bohan, the school founder, told Falkinburg last month.
The Justice Department visit last month was part of an effort by the school district to end federal oversight of its operations. Superintendent Randy Dozier said he thought Falkinburg realized that all the schools he visited were equal in quality and instruction. He believes the department may agree to lift oversight in some areas, such as school construction.
That will help as the district starts looking toward another round of building improvements in 2018-19. That’s when bonds issued in the late 1997s will be paid off.
“It’s a fairly lengthy list,” Dozier said. “If we don’t do that, we’ll be where we were 30 years ago.” “We determined then we never wanted to get in that position,” School Board Chairman Jim Dumm said.
The district will hire a firm to assess its needs. It will need voter approval for a new bond issue.