Members of the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board made a recommendation to the State Board of Education yesterday to give fellow advisory board member Baker Mitchell’s Wilmington charter school, Douglass Academy, a temporary waiver that would allow the K-2 school to avoid complying with state law that requires charter schools to enroll at least 65 students.
Last month, the Office of Charter Schools sent a warning to newly opened Douglass Academy, placing it on Governance Cautionary Status  for failing to bring its enrollment numbers up to the statutory minimum of 65. At the time that the Office of Charter Schools visited the school, only 35 students were in attendance. Currently the school’s student enrollment stands at 33.
Members of Douglass Academy’s Board of Trustees, as well as its headmaster, Barbra Jones, were asked to come to Raleigh yesterday to explain its low enrollment numbers to the Charter School Advisory Board.
Douglass officials said that their low student numbers were attributable to the fact that they had to change the school’s location and deal with last-minute renovations, prompting confusion and doubt among what they referred to as their “target market.”
The school’s projected enrollment at the time of their application for a charter was 225 students. Douglass was originally targeted toward a housing project in the south side of Wilmington, but few students from that area have enrolled.
Last fall, Douglass also stopped accepting new students after the 20th day of the school year.
“Because of the curriculum that we use…bringing students in later in the year kind of compromises the integrity of the program,” explained headmaster Jones. “And then after the 20th day, especially with our numbers, we would not have been able to receive funding to support them throughout the year as well.”
Traditional public schools must accept students throughout the school year.
Douglass’ expenses for the year have totaled approximately $200,000, but the school is receiving state and local funding for only 33 students, or roughly $150,000.
John Ferrante, Esq., chair of the board, explained how they are making up the difference.
“There is a $100,000 donation, and also the management fee has been waived,” said Ferrante.
Ferrante later told NC Policy Watch that the donation came from for-profit parent company Roger Bacon Academy. But CFO Mark Dudek then corrected him, saying that it was a private donor whose name has not been disclosed.
Grounds for a waiver for the statutory 65 student minimum generally includes serving a geographically remote area, according to legal counsel for the Charter School Advisory Board. Other instances of schools receiving wavers included those servicing students with special needs or incarcerated students.
Even though the school is located in a populous area, Joseph Maimone, Charter School Advisory Board member, nonetheless said in this case that since the original school facility didn’t work out for Douglass, a one-year waiver for complying with the 65 student minimum would be a reasonable outcome to the situation. In that scenario, Douglass would have to bring enrollment numbers up to at least 65 by the end of the second month of the 2015-15 school year.
Alan Hawkes quickly seconded his motion, saying the school had been through numerous misfortunes. “I was excited when we approved this school last year, I know it’s gonna be successful, and I urge my colleagues to go ahead and vote for this motion,” said Hawkes, who is vice president of Greensboro Academy’s school board.
Helen Nance, chair of the Charter School Advisory Board, observed the fact that with the waiver, Douglass would essentially be allowed to operate for two full school years while not having to comply with the statutory 65 student minimum.
“If they don’t have that many students by the end of October, the process takes several months…and in essence you’re saying they can stay open a second year,” said Nance.
Joel Medley, director of the Office of Charter Schools, cautioned against setting this kind of precedent going forward for future applicants, noting that waivers granted in the past only involved geographically isolated schools and schools serving students with special needs.
Roger Bacon Academy’s strong financial position, with a fund balance of $2.2 million, was held up by board members as a good reason to believe that Douglass Academy could weather financial shortfalls in the interim as they seek to increase their enrollment numbers. At this time, Douglass officials project enrollment for 2014-15 to be at least 75 students.
Charter School Advisory Board member Baker Mitchell, who is founder of the Roger Bacon Academy, the for-profit enterprise that operates four charter schools in Eastern North Carolina, including Douglass, recused himself for this portion of the meeting but remained at the table as conversations took place.
Mitchell, who has collected in the neighborhood of $16 million in taxpayer funds over the past five years for managing two other charter schools in southeastern North Carolina, is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General . Details of the case have not been made public.
Edward Pruden, Superintendent for Brunswick County Schools, theorizes that the investigation has to do with improper enrollment practices. Boosting enrollment numbers would direct more state funding to Mitchell’s charter schools.
“According to information Brunswick County Schools received, the basis of the alleged investigation was that Charter Day School … used improper means to encourage homeschooled and private school students to enroll during the first few days of school to increase the average daily membership,” Pruden wrote in a letter he sent to the State Board of Education.
Reached for comment yesterday, Pruden told NC Policy Watch, “Considering that fewer than five persons attended a well publicized public information meeting about the proposed South Brunswick Charter School, and that the new Douglass Academy is significantly under-enrolled, the need for an additional charter school here is highly questionable. It would appear that the public interest in charter schools in this area has peaked and is now in decline.”
The Charter School Advisory Board unanimously approved the motion to recommend to the State Board of Education that Douglass Academy be granted a waiver for complying with the statutory requirement of enrolling at least 65 students at a charter school through the end of October 2014. State Board of Education members will likely take up the issue next month.