Top panel says ‘no’ to school

MOREHEAD CITY — The State Board of Education took action Thursday to close a charter high school here at the end of June, citing concerns over poor academic performance and finances.

The board voted not to renew the charter of Coastal Academy on Bridges Street, formerly Cape Lookout Marine Science High School. The school’s charter is due to expire June 30.

But the school’s directors say they will open as a private school in the fall.

Barbara Johnson, board of directors chairman for Coastal Academy, said in a press statement Thursday the board plans to reopen next school year as a private school serving middle and high school students, with a special focus on at-risk students. 

The board also plans to submit a new application for a charter school as soon as the new cycle of applications become available from the state.

The board is encouraging parents to take advantage of the new state vouchers, N.C. Opportunity Scholarships, to help offset the $7,500 annual tuition that will be charged to attend the school, which will reopen as The Opportunity School at Coastal Academy. The school will work out payment plans for other parents who don’t qualify for vouchers.

Several lawsuits have been filed against the state since the General Assembly approved in July 2013 the use of $4,200 taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools. Groups filing suit include the N.C. School Boards Association and the N.C. Association of Educators, the state teachers’ lobbying group. The Carteret County Board of Education voted Tuesday to become plaintiffs in the suit filed by the N.C. School Boards Association.

The state board took its unanimous action during its meeting in Raleigh.

A state charter advisory board, in January, recommended not renewing the school’s charter, citing patterns of “noncompliance, low academic performance and concerns related to the financial sustainability,” of the school.

Plus, state funds for the school are being withheld until questions regarding an accurate student enrollment count can be worked out, something the school’s executive director, Dr. A.L. Fleming, said in a news release Thursday was being addressed.

“The state is scheduled to visit the school in the coming weeks to review records and documentation,” he said. “Our school continues to operate within budget and its current funding levels to meet its financial obligations.”

Ms. Johnson said while her board is disappointed with the state board’s decision, “The leadership of the school has been prepared for this possible outcome and has made plans for the future.”

She continued, “We are certainly disappointed in the decision of the State Board of Education to accept the recommendation of the charter school advisory board, even in the face of documented community support, documented turnaround plan and answers to all previous noncompliance issues, but our students are too important to lose. We will move forward with a different model to serve local students at risk and expand to include middle school grades.”

She encouraged parents and guardians of students “who are having challenges at traditional middle and high schools to consider applying for the new N.C. Opportunity scholarships to attend private school.”

She said priority applications to the school would be accepted through Feb. 25. The new private school will “have a directed pathway in vocational education, as well as project based learning in technology and science.”

The News-Times checked with the State Board of Education to confirm the legality of the school’s action. By presstime, the only response received was from Sarah Clark, public information officer with State Board of Education.

She said, “I am not aware of any policy/law that would prohibit them from doing that after their charter expires, but I have an email into our staff attorney just to be sure.”

As for requirements to open a private school, it must meet state safety standards for public school buildings, and all other standards set by the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education. Part of those requirements include administration of nationally standardized tests to all students in grades three, six and nine in English grammar, reading, spelling and math.

A private school must also administer to all grade 11 students each school year, a nationally standardized test that measures competencies in verbal and math areas.

The school must keep test results on file at the school for at least one calendar year for annual review by a N.C. Division of Non-Public Education representative.

As for the State Board of Education’s action, the board also voted to close one other charter school, Pace Academy in Carrboro, for similar reasons as Coastal Academy. The state board did approve charter renewals for 10 schools.

Coastal Academy, formerly Cape Lookout Marine Science High School, has fought an uphill battle during the past several years to meet state academic and financial standards, and for several years the school has had the highest dropout rate in the state.

The State Board of Education has twice before recommended the school’s closure because of issues related to financial management and low test scores. But the school filed, and won, appeals before administrative judges to remain open.

Charter schools, governed by nonprofit boards of directors, operate separately from traditional public schools. But they must meet the same State Board of Education requirements regarding financial accountability and testing requirements.

The most recent legal skirmish with the State Board of Education was in 2012-13. After a lengthy court battle, the state board agreed that the school could remain open through June 30 of this year provided it kept accurate financial records and audit reports and maintained satisfactory test scores.

Following last year’s ruling, the school’s board of directors revamped its leadership team, mission, strategic plan, staff, and even its name, in an effort to make improvements at the school this year. Dr. Fleming said the school has made significant strides this year.

But the charter advisory council stated in a document presented to the State Board of Education in January that the school had not met the stipulations outlined by the board. The report said the school has not met adequate enrollment requirements (a minimum of 65 students) based on site visits by state officials to the school. And, the school was noncompliant in the following areas: finance, exceptional children’s and Title II, which is a federal grant program.

Plus, based on last year’s state end-of-course exams, the school reported only 20 percent of its students proficient.

The school’s graduation rate for 2012-13 was 48.6 percent, versus the county’s traditional public high school average of 84.7 percent. The report also shows a 33.3 percent withdrawal rate in 2012-13, and a high absentee rate.

However, Coastal Academy has traditionally served a large population of students at risk of dropping out of high school, and many students having problems fitting into a traditional public high school have opted to attend the school. Students attending the school have touted the smaller class sizes that provide more individualized attention.

The report stated that the charter school had been elevated from “Financial Cautionary to Financial Probationary status due to concerns related to low student enrollment and inadequate record keeping. Based on the inadequacy of the record keeping and the inability to audit the average daily membership, the Division of School Business will hold all additional funds, until students can be verified.”

Dr. Fleming has stated the school’s enrollment is 70 students. The discrepancy over the enrollment count was because of staff challenges and clerical errors related to the state’s new student information system at the beginning of the year. Corrections have been made based on state recommendations. Those will be reviewed when the state team comes to the school.

Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.

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