News: CJ Exclusives

Court Ruling Has Charters Smiling

But school leaders urge caution against further entanglements

A recent court ruling for equitable local funding of charter schools put smiles on the faces of the officials at some Mecklenburg County charters, but despite the victory, at least one of the school leaders is wary of further entanglements.

Metrolina Scholars’ Academy board chairman Evan Kettler’s first reaction to the ruling was “guarded optimism.” Like other charter school leaders, Kettler was pleased with the ruling but he was careful to place it into context. “We’ll believe it when we see it,” he said, noting the prospect of appeals and further litigation.

Recalling that Metrolina Scholars was the last of the five schools to join the lawsuit more than two years ago, Kettler said that his board thought long and hard about whether to get involved. The deciding factor was not the money — for Kettler and the school’s board of directors, it was a matter of fairness. “You always have to wonder every year, when you see what their [CMS] per-pupil instructional funding is and see what ours is, and compare,” he said.

Charter schools are public schools that, by law, are entitled to the same per-pupil funding as other public schools in their areas. But since their inception in 1996, several school districts around the state have attempted to withhold or reduce funding owed to charters, employing a variety of novel legal arguments in the process.

But Kettler and his board would have none of that. “We’re modeling behavior for our students every day; we’re standing up for what’s right even though we’re the little guy. That’s what we teach our kids,” he said.

Despite the lawsuit, Kettler said he doesn’t blame CMS. “We want to have a good relationship with CMS. They have an incredibly difficult job to do,” he said.

Dr. Richard Beall, director of Carolina International Charter School, said he was grateful for the court’s decision. He said it’s important for the public to understand that charter schools are also public schools.

“There are over 30,000 children in North Carolina public charter schools, and they don’t receive the same funding for facilities or from the so-called ‘education lottery‚’ that other schools do,” Beall said. “We’re challenged to do our best without the funding that others receive.”

Over at Kennedy Charter School, Fred Grosse said he was “thrilled” with the news of the victory. Noting that the Kennedy school focuses on disadvantaged students, he called the case “a justice issue.”

Grosse said the social and economic disadvantages that the 285 students enrolled at the school struggle with make them some of the most “drop-out prone” in the state, and that to succeed with those students the school must provide many more services than usual. “We don’t want any more than we’re due, but every penny counts,” he said.

While none of the schools contacted had yet developed specific plans for the use of the monies they will receive, all indicated that the funds will be put to good use. Noting that the ruling established a standard that school districts must adhere to in apportioning funding going forward, Kettler said, “We’re more concerned about the long-term value, 50 years down the road, of the terms of charter school funding.” The exact amount each school is to receive as a result of the ruling has not been determined.

The charter school officials said their lawyer, Richard Vinroot, played a critical role in the victory. Beall said Vinroot pointed out to the charter officials that their schools were not getting all they were owed.

Vinroot alerted the charter schools to the situation and got the five schools on board, Bealle said. Grosse said Vinroot was “the prime mover” behind the lawsuit and praised his “very, very dogged determination and knowledge of the law.”

“I can’t say enough about Richard’s efforts,” Kettler said. ”This never would have happened without him. It’s important to have someone who understands that unusual relationship the law establishes between charter schools and the school districts, and Richard does.”