Board member eyes charter school expansion 

Arthur Ravenel Wants Your School

An accusation lobbed at Arthur Ravenel during his school board run in 2006 was that he planned on selling the "Taj Mahal," a nickname for the district's three-story headquarters on Calhoun Street. It turns out that he's not all that concerned about selling the district's property; in fact Ravenel would apparently prefer to give away half-used or unused district buildings to charter school programs straining for space.

When the district's budget came up short this year, Superintendent Nancy McGinley said the district would sell excess property as a one-time fix, while taking a broad look at school closings and consolidations to provide more efficiency and to put a few more properties on the market. But this effort toward frugality — once thought to be a staunch conservative principle — is now at odds with another Ravenel mantra: supporting parent-led charter schools.

He didn't get the majority he'd hoped for when elected in '06, but Ravenel has been able to find enough support for a few issues closest to his heart. Earlier this year, Ravenel won free lodging for the new Charleston Charter School for Math and Science in the largely unusued Rivers Middle School. While the district spends years on structural improvements to the building, Ravenel also got the board to provide trailers to the charter school until the work is complete.

Earlier this year, Ravenel allegedly called McGinley a "bitch" during a rant over the Math and Science charter request, either indicating his frustration with the school district or his commitment to charters.

Ravenel says the consolidation of half-filled schools should free up space for growing charters — buildings like the Archer campus on the peninsula, currently housing students from Sanders-Clyde Elementary while a new school is being built.

"I know several campuses are looking at that school," Ravenel says of charters eyeing the building.

And those charter schools have more than just Ravenel's thumbs up — with the district's support of the Math and Science charter, they have precedent.

There is also a state law instructing the Charleston school district, exclusively, to provide any resources to a charter school that it would provide to public schools. Though it has not been challenged in court, Republican state Attorney General Henry McMaster said last year that the district couldn't charge rent for the use of existing buildings.

Finding a facility is a major stumbling block for charter schools, says Joel Medley, with the state Department of Education's Charter School Office.

"Some of the charter schools receive all the necessary approvals. They just can't find a facility, so they never open," he says.

Charter schools often have to go out into the market and find private bank loans to pay for their buildings. The money for those loans likely would come out of the state-mandated stipend a charter receives based on its student population and a percentage of the district's operating budget.

The Math and Science charter is operating with a $1.9 million budget. Money spent on installing the temporary trailers and upgrading the gym and cafeteria for the charter has cost $985,368, according to district estimates. Had the charter school been responsible for those costs, nearly half of its budget would have been drained before the first book was cracked.

But the needs of these charters is going to have to be weighed against the responsibilities of the School Board. Chairman Hillery Douglas says that a philosophical debate is looming.

"We're going to have to see about putting a moratorium on additional programs or additional schools until we get our house in order," he says.

The consolidations aren't Douglas' only concern. Some public schools are weighing a conversion to charter status to seize more control for parents and teachers over funding and curriculum.

The fate of the district's unused buildings will likely be determined early next year, after the district completes a thorough vetting of each school. But news last week that the district can expect to lose another $5 million to $6 million in state funding next year means hand-outs may not be an option.

Picking the Litter

District officials currently plan to judge schools for potential consolidation based on 16 criteria, including enrollment, state report cards, quality of the facility, per pupil costs, and alternative opportunities.

"We know that people will feel very strongly about any decisions," she says. "Communities should have a voice in this."

The district is hosting public meetings to explain the process. Upcoming meetings are 6-7 p.m. on Sept. 17 at St. Johns High School, Sept. 24 at St. James-Santee Elementary, and Oct. 1 at West Ashley High. Meetings will run from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at North Charleston Elementary and Sept. 30 at Wando High.


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