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Brunswick County charter school under investigation

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By Sam Hickman

 In August, Brunswick County will be the home of two charter schools through Roger Bacon Academy, which is facing an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.

Brunswick County Schools superintendent Edward Pruden attempted to thwart the application for South Brunswick Charter School, but the application was approved Jan. 9.

Both Charter Day School Inc. in Leland and Columbus Charter School, which are both operated by the Roger Bacon Academy, are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General, according to an October letter from the department to Pruden.

Pruden sent letters to the State Board of Education in August, September, November and January voicing his concerns with the operations behind the charter schools. He sent the response he received from the U.S. Department of Education to the state board concerning the investigation.

Brunswick County Schools requested a release of information from the U.S. Department of Education, but his request was denied because information cannot be released while the investigation is under way.

Pruden wrote to the state board that the investigation centers on skewed enrollment numbers at Charter Day School.

“According to information Brunswick County Schools received,” Pruden wrote, “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 said the enrollment number is used to determine state funding levels.

“We have serious concerns about the governance and financial accountability that current state law affords charter schools,” he said. “If it is legal, it is not right for over $4 million of taxpayers' education money to be paid annually to a management company owned by one individual. It is not right for the same individual to serve on his own board of directors and on the state charter board in Raleigh that approves new charters.

“Legislative reform is needed to correct incestuous governance and management of charter schools, and to ensure financial transparency of the millions of public dollars changing hands.”

Baker Mitchell, founder of Roger Bacon Academy, said he hasn’t been notified by any governmental agency regarding the investigation.

“I don’t have any idea what the nature of the investigation would be,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said Pruden’s enrollment numbers allegations “made no sense.”

“We typically have 200 to 300 on the waiting list. We have a public lottery and we usually have to turn down several potential students,” Mitchell said. “We always have a waiting list. We’ve never called anyone that hasn’t applied or tried to enroll to recruit students. The very basis doesn’t make any sense to me.”

The opening of charter schools means fewer students will be served by the public school system, but local school districts are still responsible for funding the charter schools.

By law, charter schools receive the per pupil allotment for each student they enroll. In Brunswick County, that allotment is about $7,600. Consequently, if the traditional public schools lost 150 students to the new South Brunswick Charter, Brunswick County Schools would lose about $1.1 million.

Brunswick County sent $1.9 million to charter schools during the 2013-14 school year.

The State Board of Education sent a one-page letter of response to Pruden’s letters, asking that he try to resolve this on the local level. They also dismissed Pruden’s concerns about Mitchell’s potential conflicts of interest, saying Mitchell was lawfully appointed to the Charter School Advisory Board.

The state board indicated Mitchell had potential conflict of interests as president of Roger Bacon Academy, owner of threshold in Roger Bacon Academy, owner of threshold in Coastal Habitat Conservancy (which leases equipment and facilities to charter schools), member of the Board of Directors of Charter Day School, member of Board of Directors for the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and member of the John Locke Foundation.

“I think it’d be more beneficial to focus on the students’ education than these mysterious allegations,” Mitchell said.

Pruden responded, “The allegations are not ours and we will leave it to the investigating agencies to determine how mysterious they are.”

Mitchell said Roger Bacon Academy has had a positive working relationship with Brunswick County Schools in the past.

“We had a great cooperative spirit when (former Brunswick County Schools superintendent) Katie McGee was superintendent,” he said. “It’s a shame that cooperative spirit doesn’t still apply.”

 

Sam Hickman is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or shickman@brunswickbeacon.com.