Education

Charter school fires back after critical Durham City Council vote

Durham City Council members Javiera Caballero, left, and Mark-Anthony Middleton, right, speak with Mayor Steve Schewel, middle, ahead of a City Council meeting on Monday, August 6, 2018. The council voted 5-2 to reject a charter school financing, with Schewel and Caballero voting down the financing and Middleton supporting it.
Durham City Council members Javiera Caballero, left, and Mark-Anthony Middleton, right, speak with Mayor Steve Schewel, middle, ahead of a City Council meeting on Monday, August 6, 2018. The council voted 5-2 to reject a charter school financing, with Schewel and Caballero voting down the financing and Middleton supporting it. jwall@newsobserver.com

A charter school is defending itself after the Durham City Council rejected its request to authorize an education bond to fund its expansion.

The school, Excelsior Classical Academy, is a K-7 school that began as a K-4 school three years ago and whose charter allows it to expand into a K-12. It is adding a new grade each year.

The school needed the City Council’s approval to get the financing. The school has been leasing the old Liggett and Myers building at 4100 N. Roxboro St. and bought it with a bridge loan, expecting to be authorized by the council for financing it.

But the council rejected it 5-2.

Excelsior Classical Academy issued a response to the council on Monday, saying the council members “who voted against approving the bond resolution indicated they did not want to do anything that would help a charter school” and “In the discussion that occurred at the council meeting, several complaints against charter schools were brought up.”

Mayor Steve Schewel, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson and council members Vernetta Alston, Javiera Caballero and Charlie Reece all voted against the financing. Johnson, Caballero and Reece all have children in the Durham Public Schools system.

Reece said as Excelsior expands, “more Durham children are going to go to your school and more of our tax dollars will go to your school.”

“We have the discretion not to assist that, not to contribute our city’s stamp to that endeavor,” Johnson said at the meeting.

Excelsior’s statement says “charter schools are public schools” and explains how they must receive approval from the N.C. Board of Education. The statement goes on to include information about its leaders, demographics and curriculum.

It also noted that the school provides busing and free and reduced-price lunch, which is required of traditional public schools but not charter schools.

The two council members who voted in favor of giving the go ahead for the bonds were council member DeDreana Freeman, whose children attend a different charter school, and council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, a former board member of Excelsior.

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Middleton also said during the council meeting that it was important to him that Excelsior provided transportation and free and reduced lunch.

Saying yes to the education bond would not have cost the city anything and would not make it responsible for the loan. The City Council has no jurisdiction over the public school system, which is overseen by the Durham Public Schools Board of Education and Durham County Board of Commissioners. Charter schools receive public funding per student and are governed by their own charters and boards.

Excelsior’s statement said that “rather than vote on the requested item, the council elected to vote down the request on the basis that it did not wish to be perceived as supporting a charter school regardless of the positive impact the school might be having for its constituency.”

Since the vote, multiple parents of Excelsior and other charter school students have emailed City Council members expressing disappointment in the vote.

Cynthia Gadol, executive director of Excelsior, told The Herald-Sun last week that they had not decided how to obtain the financing since being turned down by the city. They could also ask the county or the state to approve the bonds.

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