The superintendents of both local school systems have sent official responses or impact statements to officials in Raleigh concerning the application filed last month by the Roger Bacon Academy to create a charter school just north of Whiteville.
The proposed Columbus Charter School would target students from the Bladen, Columbus and Whiteville City schools, specifically students in Whiteville, Chadbourn, Clarkton and Bladenboro.
Roger Bacon Academy operates the 600-plus-student Brunswick Charter Day School near Leland, which already attracts nearly 200 students from the eastern portion of Columbus County.
Roger Bacon Academy is seeking one of four available charter school slots to be awarded this year. There are 19 applications pending with the Office of Charter Schools in Raleigh. It was to that office that Superintendents Danny McPherson, of the Whiteville City Schools, and Dan Strickland, of the Columbus County Schools, responded.
Roger Bacon officials hope that the Columbus Charter School will have as many as 850 students within a decade. Per-student funds from the state and federal governments will be re-assigned to the charter school.
McPherson asked the Department of Public Instruction and the N.C. Board of Education to deny the application, citing both short and long-term effects for the city schools, including re-segregation of the schools.
“I strongly fear the proliferation of re-segregation in the schools of Columbus County if this charter is approved,” he wrote. “Even now, the Columbus County Board of Education is re-examining its student transfer policy in part because of racial imbalance as well as facilities, space and related issues. There are schools in Columbus County that have ‘re-segregated’ and I believe this charter will accelerate what (author) Jonathan Kozal calls ‘apartheid schooling in America’ (from) ‘The Shame of the Nation.’”
Of the nearly 200 students that Roger Bacon Academy reported as transfers from Columbus County, the majority are white students from Acme-Delco Elementary and Middle schools.
Fair Bluff Elementary is trying to recover from the “student flight” it has suffered during the past decade. The majority of students, including nearly all of its remaining white students, transferred to other school districts, other school systems or to private schools. Some went into South Carolina.
McPherson worries that local schools will find themselves in similar predicaments.
He wrote that he favors accountability and, “I do not fear competition IF we compete fairly. When I asked the charter representatives about equal access for all students, they responded that everyone was invited and no stipulations prevented any child from attending. But … transportation is not provided; free or reduced meals are not provided and children who demonstrate persistent ‘behavior inconsistent with the school’s mission or standard of conduct’ will be ‘dismissed’ from the school if other interventions fail.”
McPherson wrote that those issues filter students and families and create barriers that prevent them from attending.
“Quite frankly, lower socio-economic families are not accommodated and children’s total needs are not met. We in the regular public schools can’t ‘dis-invite’ children when they don’t; behave according to our ‘standard of conduct’. Last week, we administered writing tests to four children who are on house arrest. We don’t have the option to send the ‘nonconformists’ back to their home schools. We are the ‘home.’”
McPherson cited the improvements in student achievement, test scores and decreased rates of student violence and teacher turnover.
McPherson wrote that a charter school might come into some communities and accentuate the work of the public schools and the health, vitality, economy and long-term life within those communities.
“Yet I cannot adequately express the trepidation this proposal causes me for our county for generations to come,” he wrote. “Our public schools have been the ‘equalizer’ for many children and families. The success of our public schools will mirror the success of our citizens and everyone’s quality of life.”
Strickland’s response dealt with the success the county has enjoyed and the financial hardship a charter school would impose on such a cash-strapped school system.
Columbus County is one of the poorest school systems with 19 campuses stretched out in the geographically third largest county in the state.
“We are a very poor county,” Strickland wrote. “The percentage of our county’s budget going to Medicaid is almost the highest in the state. Consequently, little discretionary money is available for education.
Strickland wrote that required expenditures do not drop proportionately when students on a bus route or in a school move to a charter school.
“The buses still run, the teachers still work with the students and the electricity bill continues to arrive in the mail,” he wrote. “Local money must be budgeted to maintain buildings, pay for unfunded mandates and hire teachers to meet class size requirements.
“As a public school system accountable to the local taxpayers and parents, we provide more than classroom instruction. We have breakfast and lunch, transportation to and from school and specialized services for students who meet certain criteria.”
Strickland said that 80 percent of the children in kindergarten through grade eight receive free or reduced price meals.
“For some, these meals are the best nutrition they get during the day. The public school serves the children of all citizens who live in the county and welcomes all who arrive at the school door.
Strickland requested that the board deny the application.
The Office of Charter Schools will make its recommendations this month and forward them to the State Board of Education and the General Assembly for final action.