Durham’s actions may mean NC restricts the power of towns to say no to charter schools

Tyrrell County Water/Sewer Department supervisor Johnny Spencer pumps out a sewer line on Davenport Road in Tyrrell County, N.C., on Thursday, July 23, 2020. (Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com)
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Durham’s decision to not extend water and sewer service to a new charter school could lead to the state limiting the ability of municipalities to restrict charter schools.

The North Carolina House voted 92-14 on Thursday for a bill that requires municipalities to extend water and/or sewer service, if they have the capacity, when requested by charter schools.

Republican lawmakers cited how some municipalities, singling out Durham by name, had blocked requests from charter schools for utility service.

“The concern we’re trying to address is the denial of water and sewer to charter schools because local governments simply in some cases don’t want charter schools — unfortunate as it is,” Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, said at this week’s House Education Committee meeting. “I think we’re growing out of that, but that still exists.”

Supporters of the legislation said it requires municipalities to treat charter schools the same as they do traditional public schools.

House Republicans added the wording about water and sewer service this week to a Senate bill that would require installing carbon monoxide detectors in all public schools. The House revised that section as well to drop the installation requirement.

Instead, the House said the State Board of Education will study how many schools need detectors and estimate how much it would cost.

Senate Bill 450 will return to the Senate to see if it supports the new language.

Durham fights charter school expansion

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow, such as providing bus service and meals to students.

On Tuesday, school-choice supporters celebrated the 25th anniversary of the state law creating charter schools. There are now 200 charter schools serving 126,000 students statewide.

But Torbett complained that some municipalities are blocking charter schools, specifically Durham.

There are 14 charter schools open in Durham. The county has one of the highest percentage of students attending charter schools in the state.

In 2020, the State Board of Education approved Oak Grove Charter Academy, which plans to open in Northeast Durham outside city limits and within Durham County limits. It will now be called North Oak Academy to avoid confusing it with a district school called Oak Grove.

North Oak Academy will be managed by National Heritage Academies, a for-profit company based in Michigan.

Both Durham Public School and the Wake County school system unsuccessfully opposed the application for the new charter school. Durham school leaders argued the new charter would hamper efforts to improve nearby Glenn Elementary School and increase segregation and socio-economic isolation in eastern Durham.

North Oak Academy has run into far more difficulty getting approvals from Durham city leaders.

National Heritage Academies sought to incorporate the planned school’s property into city limits and asked for water access last November. The request was rejected by the Durham City Council.

“Let’s just say it’s no secret that I believe that charter schools have been detrimental to Durham Public Schools in many ways,” Mayor Steve Schewel said at the November meeting. “I think they have been re-segregating, and I think that they have also really taken so much of the good parental and professional energy out of our public schools.”

“And that that has been damaging,” he added.

In addition to requiring providing water and sewer, the legislation also says that municipalities have to approve annexation requests from charter schools if the property is eligible.

Charter school ‘martyr’

National Heritage Academies returned in May to ask Durham to extend water and sewer lines to the school site. It was again rejected even after Bill Brian, the company’s attorney, threatened legal action against the city.

The school was originally supposed to open in 2021 but it has gotten state permission to delay opening to 2022. Brian told city leaders they need the water and sewer service to be able to open.

Brian warned city leaders that rejecting the request would be a Pyrrhic victory.

“Council’s action will make this particular school a martyr to the charter school cause around which pro-charter school forces will gather, and in response ... legislative action which both supports public charter schools and further curtails the power of cities and counties over them will likely be taken,” Brian said at the May meeting.

“Therefore the result of the Council’s decision will be to undermine the anti-charter school cause that it says it supports. Surely the short-term satisfaction the Council will gain from temporarily stopping this one public charter school is not worth the greater harm to the anti-charter school movement that will result from the decision.”

But Durham council members weren’t impressed by the threat.

“If you’re going to do it, do it, but the tethering of our decision to the specter of possibly having legal action taken against us is just off putting to me,” said council member Mark-Anthony Middleton. “And I don’t think it’s helpful to your clients.”