News: CJ Exclusives

Martin Board Refuses to Lease Vacant Building to Charter School

School board chairman says he opposes all charter schools

Newly created Bear Grass Charter School planned to open its doors this August in an abandoned high school building, but the Martin County Board of Education said the building is not for sale or rent.

Bear Grass High School has been closed since June 2010. It was consolidated with a high school in the neighboring town of Robersonville because of low student populations. Moreover, the Martin County School Board said the building was unsafe.

Except for occasional community events, the school board has had no use for the high school, until about a month ago, when it announced it would like to turn it into an alternative school for a small group of children who’ve been expelled from traditional schools.

Bear Grass Charter School Director Delmas Cumbee said the school board showed no interest in the building until his school expressed interest in buying or leasing it.

The charter school now is suing the school board, arguing that it is required by law to let the charter school lease unused buildings, unless “the lease is not economically or practically feasible or that the local board does not have adequate classroom space to meet its enrollment needs,” neither of which Cumbee says is the case.

Martin County Board of Education Chairman Gene Scott said the school board already has plans for the old high school building.

“We actually intend on using that building ourselves for a drop-back-in program — for kids that dropped out of school — an alternative program and another program that we’re currently doing,” Scott said.

“The building that we currently use, the rent has gone up on it, and so therefore there is no need paying rent for a building when we actually have a building there in the county we can use,” he added.

Cumbee said there are only a “handful” of students in the alternative school program and that they probably wouldn’t even fill one classroom in the old high school.

“There has been no talk of using the school since it closed down two years ago,” he said. “It’s only been in the last month or so that they’ve started talking about putting an alternative school there.”

But when Bear Grass Charter School requested to use the building a couple of months ago, Cumbee said the school board notified him “the building was not safe, that it was not fit to be a school. That was one of their reasons for consolidation.”

While the school was built in the 1920s and could use a fresh coat of paint, Cumbee says he has no doubts about its safety. He just wishes the school board members would make up their minds about it.

“Honestly, they just don’t want us to have a school there,” Cumbee said. “The chairman of the Martin County Board of Education has been quoted as saying that he does not recognize charter schools as public schools.”

Scott confirmed this in an interview with Carolina Journal.

“I oppose any kind of charter school, because I am a man of public education,” he said.

“Charter schools take away funds from the local school,” Scott said. “Plus, we are in a very small county. We had two high schools that we consolidated and the two schools was operating very well and we just didn’t see no need for a charter school to be coming to the county.

“And the guidelines for charter schools are nowhere around as stringent as they are for public schools, so we feel they have an easier road to travel,” he added.

Cumbee thinks Scott and others on the school board see charter schools as a threat. If Bear Grass Charter School is successful it will make traditional schools in the area look bad by comparison, he said.

Bear Grass’ charter was approved in March, shortly after the General Assembly lifted the statewide cap on charter schools.

Bear Grass board members filed a lawsuit against the Martin County Board of Education June 20. Cumbee said it is against the law for the board to withhold access to a building they’re not using. He expects a ruling in July.

Either way, the school is set to open Aug. 27, if not in the old high school building, in temporary modular units.

Sara Burrows is a contributor to Carolina Journal.