The charter school debate gets personal in Durham as council rejects expansion

Durham City Council member DeDreana Freeman awaits the start of a City Council meeting on Monday, August 6, 2018.
Durham City Council member DeDreana Freeman awaits the start of a City Council meeting on Monday, August 6, 2018. jwall@newsobserver.com

The argument over charter schools reached the Durham City Council on Monday night, even though the council has no jurisdiction over the school system.

Council members were divided over giving the go ahead for Excelsior Classical Academy, a charter school, to get education revenue bonds. The bonds require no money from the city, just its approval. Excelsior needs the financing to pay off the bridge loan it used to buy the building it had been leasing, along with upfitting the space.

But the council voted no, 5-2.

The two yes votes were from council member DeDreana Freeman, whose children attend a charter school, and council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who was a founding board member of Excelsior.

“I find it quite offensive that we would even consider using this as an opportunity to push a charter school out of business,” Freeman said.

Charter schools receive public money per pupil, but are governed by their own charters rather than by the Durham Public Schools system.

Freeman said that denying the financing, which costs the city nothing, would harm the students attending Excelsior.

“This is not the football we want to throw,” she said. “I will go to the mat on defending public schools. This is not how you do it.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, council member Javiera Caballero and council member Charlie Reece have children in DPS schools.

Reece said that Excelsior could get it through another government entity. He said that while he didn’t want to harm this “fantastic charter school,” Excelsior’s expansion would mean more students and tax dollars going there instead of DPS schools.

City Attorney Patrick Baker said that Excelsior could also ask for the financing through Durham County or the state.

Charters vs. traditional schools

Johnson said that as a parent, she understands why parents in the community want to pursue the best possible educational outcomes for their children.

“But I don’t think we can ignore the larger social impacts of that decision,” she said, nor the council’s decision whether or not to support the expansion of a charter school in Durham.

Johnson said they can’t stop the state’s expansion of charter schools.

“Rather than acting as labs for innovation and exploration, I believe that charters are now becoming a mechanism by which public education in our state and our community is being threatened and being harmed,” Johnson said.

Cynthia Gadol, executive director of Excelsior, said it wanted to purchase the building it has been leasing since it opened three years ago. Located at 4100 N. Roxboro St., the building is the former Liggett and Myers headquarters. The charter is for a K-12 school, and it now has a K-7 school that is adding a new grade each year. Gadol said they have been upfitting the building and want to expand the facility as the student population grows.

“As a charter school, we have to pay for our own building, unlike district schools,” she said. Gadol said the 30-year bond would give them a better cash flow to pay their teachers better.

Gadol said that the school student population last year was about 52 percent white, 29 percent African American and 11 percent Latino.

Mayor Steve Schewel said “nothing is more important to the community than the success of public schools. I understand some choose charters. I believe all our kids ought to be going to school together.”

“My own feelings about charters and our Durham Public Schools is [there are] individual charters such as yours that have a lot of diversity ... on the other hand we are facing a situation where charters are making it so much harder for Durham Public Schools and public schools in general to operate successfully,” Schewel said.

There are 32,000 children in DPS schools and about 6,500 in charter schools.

The mayor said that this was a time to make it a public policy issue.

“Is this the appropriate place to take that? To address issue of charters and public schools? Do we want to offer that financing? In my mind, I don’t think that we do. Options are a taxable loan, I understand that’s more expensive,” Schewel said.

Gadol said that Excelsior is a public school and the money follows students. “We are educating those students, and we are doing a good job,” she said.

Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, pictured here awaiting the start of a City Council meeting on Monday, August 6, 2018. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Middleton said he’s concerned about the children who are students at Excelsior right now. The school year just started.

“This is not costing us any money. This is being used as a foil for a conversation [about charter schools] we need to have,” he said.

“The public policy issue, for me, is serving our children. I personally watched — particularly young black boys — how their faces lit up when they walked in that school,” Middleton said. “I agree this is a public policy issue, but the public policy issue for me is the students, the children that are there now.”

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan
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