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Questions rise for charter school proposal

Issues of funding, changes to state law still remain

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Posted: Sunday, October 28, 2012 1:43 pm | Updated: 1:49 pm, Wed Nov 7, 2012.

In 2012, Rockingham County Schools lost more than $34,000 as students left for charter programs in other areas. By launching his own charter school program, Rockingham Superintendent Rodney Shotwell hopes to get that funding back.

Questions arose after Shotwell’s presentation of his plan Monday, Oct. 22 to the Rockingham County Board of Education, including how the classes would be funded. Shotwell’s proposal calls for one charter school to be established in each of the county’s four high schools, along with two additional schools targeting dropouts and middle school students struggling with below average grades.

A charter school is a free, public option for students to focus on certain areas of study. It differs from a public school in that charters don’t have to follow the state mandated curriculum, they can operate on a different schedule instead of the 180-day calendar and aren’t required to provide transportation for students or breakfast and lunch. Additionally, students from other counties and states can attend charter schools, whereas public schools are limited to those living within the district. Another major point is that charter schools are allowed to use non-certified teachers, employing them on short term contracts.

“I don’t want people to think we’re hiring a bunch of uncertified people for this,” Shotwell said of using non-certified teachers, “but there are folks that are really good in their area of expertise that as a regular school, I can’t use them.”

Shotwell illustrates his point with a story of two dancers. One went to school and became a dance teacher in a world famous studio. The other got her teaching degree to do dance.

“They were professionally trained too,” Shotwell said. “They just happened to get a teaching degree and started teaching dance. We’re not lowering the standards.”

Shotwell said his instructors do have to meet requirements of the Career Technical Education, adding that he will have some permanent certified teachers at the charter schools as well.

Shotwell hopes to utilize local resources for his plans. He said he has spoken with both Annie Penn Hospital President Mickey Foster and Morehead Hospital President Carl Martin who are both on board for the Health and Science Academy. Shotwell said both presidents offered classroom space at their hospitals to teach the students.

Shotwell pointed out hospital staff isn’t just nurses and doctors and working alongside the hospitals can teach data entry, hospitality and other services, which could benefit the students. Shotwell said he would also work with Rockingham Community College to further the student’s education, and once they’ve graduated from RCS they could continue their education at RCC or go to a four-year institute.

Shotwell also hopes the local industries he works with could offer his students apprenticeships, practicum’s and possibly jobs. He looks to this especially for the vocational academy he plans to start.

“There are apprenticeship programs that are offered through the NC Department of Labor that can be an outgrowth of this vocational academy,” Shotwell said.

The biggest question is where funding will come for the new schools. Shotwell said his plan is to move the per pupil funding from the district’s schools into the charter school. Every year Rockingham County Schools gets an allotment, or the per pupil funding from both the county and the state. Shotwell said once the money is given to him, it’s his to do as he will. However, if Shotwell loses any students to a charter school, this money follows the student.

This year, Rockingham County Schools lost an estimated $34,678 to charter schools, with students chosing to leave. Shotwell said the money for charter school students, which comes out of the district’s budget, is given directly to the charter schools. If county students are going to six different charter schools, within, and outside the county, he writes each school a separate check. Shotwell said he believes opening charter schools in the district is to his advantage because ultimately, he’s writing a check to himself, with more flexibility.

The superintendent said his intent is to survive on the money that is allocated for the charter schools, adding that Rockingham charter schools would offer amenities current charter schools do not. In addition to providing transportation, the students are still within the district and therefore they can still qualify for the Title One services or count towards the free or reduced lunch programs.

“Those kids will still count towards us and the resources we’d be able to provide for them would still be there,” Shotwell said.

Shotwell said he doesn’t offer Title One to his middle and high school students.

“I didn’t get to talk about it much,” Shotwell said of the elementary school model, “but with the Montessori or the International Baccalaureate, if I had one of those set up, any of those kids that qualified for Title One that charter, or academy, in that school would get the per pupil Title One dollar allotment because we as a district fill out the grant and we would include all our charters in that grant application when we send it in.”

International Baccalaureate programs have a curriculum geared toward math and science, including computer science and experimental sciences.

State law an issue

The main issue standing in the way of launching the new programs is North Carolina state law. In 1996, North Carolina’s General Assembly passed the Charter Schools Act, amending it occasionally like with last year’s Senate Bill 8. School districts have the ability now to approve and open charter schools, provided they launch a nonprofit board of directors to manage it and set aside its own facility, according to North Carolina General Statute 115C.238.29.

“The school may lease space from a local board of education or as is otherwise lawful in the local school administrative unit in which the charter school is located,” the statute reads.

That language is currently interpreted to mean that a charter school can’t operate in the same facility as a public school. Instead, the board of directors would need to rent property. The Rockingham program also wants to do away with the nonprofit board of directors requirement, placing the charter schools directly under the Board of Education’s supervision.

To change the law, Shotwell will need the support of state legislators. So far he has only talked with Representative Paul Stam. Shotwell said this is because Stam invited him, along with three members of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, to discuss this type of school system. The four men, including Shotwell, New Hanover Superintendent Tim Markley, Forsyth Superintendent Don Martin and Mount Airy Superintendent Greg Little, have formed a Charter School Committee to examine the possibility of opening these charter schools within a school district.

Officials with the North Carolina Association of School Administrators explained that the committee was created to develop proposals for improving relations between traditional and charter schools, as well as strengthening services offered by charter programs. They added however that it was a long way from making any recommendations.

“The committee is in the early phase of its work and most likely will be working more extensively on those charter policy proposals in the next few weeks,” School Administrators Assistant Executive Director Katherine Joyce said.

Calls to Rep. Stam’s Raleigh office were not returned by press time. Shotwell said Stam invited the men to meet after the State Board of Education released their pamphlet on the two types of public school systems in North Carolina.

Shotwell admits to being the guinea pig on this experience, saying that Rockingham County will lay the ground work for this type of education.

“I think it’s a process between now and when the long session begins,” Shotwell said. “Once the session begins it’s fast and furious with bills all over the place. The time to work on something like this is now.”

Shotwell said in addition to the Charter School Committee working on this plan, he believes a meeting with the Speaker of the House is being scheduled and the committee will talk with other key legislators.

Members of the Rockingham County delegation to the General Assembly said they would have to read the finished proposal, before saying if they would help Shotwell change the state law.

“I am not familiar enough with Dr. Shotwell's plan to comment on it,” Rep. Bert Jones said. “I look forward to learning more about his plan and hearing from all the stakeholders regarding the issue.  I expect that any such plans will be evaluated during the next session with the new governor and legislature.”

His comments were echoed by Senate President Phil Berger’s office staff.

“To our knowledge this is an idea that Dr. Shotwell is currently mulling over, not a finalized and fully formulated plan,” Berger’s Press Secretary Brandon Greife said. “Until there is an actual proposal that Sen. Berger and his staff have had time to digest there is not much we can say.”

Legislators come back into session in January.

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