A new charter school is coming to Iredell County.

And it’s coming fast.

A Florida-based educational management organization – EMO – called Charter Schools USA is planning to build a new facility just south of Troutman.

The project cleared a hurdle last month when the Troutman Planning Board recommended approval of rezoning the property on which the school is to be built. At Thursday's regular meeting of the Troutman Town Council, the zoning change, as well as the annexation of the property into Troutman town limits, is likely to be approved.

Brian Devlin, a developer with the Ryan Company, gave a brief presentation at the planning board meeting regarding the property located just off of U.S. 21 and just south of the Lowe’s Home Improvement shopping center.

Devlin said Ryan Company is the primary builder of facilities for Charter Schools USA, and he said the schools are built quickly.

“It will open in August 2016,” Devlin said as eyebrows of doubt were raised across the planning board dais.

“That’s next year,” said Planning Board member Mike Todd, more as a question than a statement.

“Yes," Devlon responded. "That's right."

Charter school factory

Colleen Reynolds is a spokesperson for Charter Schools USA. She said the organization has the entire soup-to-nuts creation and operation of charter schools down to a science.

“It’s really incredible to see how they are built,” she said of the construction of the buildings. “One day you’ll drive by the site and there will be an empty lot. You’ll drive by a few days later and there will be a school there. They are like giant jigsaw puzzles that just need to be put together."

Charter Schools USA is a for-profit group that has been in the charter school business for almost as long as there have been charter schools. The company started in 1998, which is seven years after the first charter school opened for business as an educational experiment in Minnesota, but long before charter schools began proliferating throughout the nation.

Reynolds explained that when the idea of a charter school reaches its push-comes-to-shove point, those championing it can either go it alone and learn as they go or call a group like Charter Schools USA, who knows the process from beginning to end.

“The problem some folks have is that they have the impetus and the passion to start a charter school,” she said, “but that passion sometimes does not carry them through. A lot of the charter schools that fail are because of poor planning.”

Reynolds said a call placed to the organization she represents can get things moving at a much quicker pace.

"We are a full service management company," said Sandy Castro, the director of development for Charter Schools USA. "If you want to start a charter school, you can do it from the ground up, but you should know there is a lot of work involved. And it's usually more than people anticipated. We do it all and we've been very successful."

Castro said she is positive the school in Troutman will open next year. She said of the 70 schools the group has been involved with, only one did not open on the day it was scheduled and that was because of permitting issues. It opened three days late.

The organization knows at full capacity, exactly 661 students will attend the school, and its demographics will reflect those of Iredell County.

"There is a formula," Castro said.

Charters gone wild

But Chris Terrill is not of a fan of Charter Schools USA.

Terrill is the Head of Schools at Pine Lake Preparatory in Mooresville, a charter school that opened without the aid of an EMO, and Terrill believes it’s a truer representation of the charter school model.

"It starts to get away from its designed purpose when you have organizations like Charter Schools USA involved," he said. "Because, whether they said it or not, they are in this to make a profit."

Terrill said one of the ways that’s accomplished is by having full enrollment numbers for the first 28 days of school and then having parents jump ship and head back to public schools.

"After 28 days, the state pays for the student for the entire year," Terrill said. "And then when the student goes back to public school, there is no additional funding."

Another way Charter Schools USA makes money is by charging rent, through a subsidiary of the organization called Red Apple LLC, to the local nonprofit group in whose name the school is chartered.

This same model is used at Langtree Charter Academy and the Cabarrus Charter Academy, which are both chartered to a group called the North Carolina Charter Educational Foundation, Inc. and operated by Charter Schools USA.

At an Iredell County Board of Commissioners meeting last August, it was noted in a matter related to the securing of bonds that the land and buildings comprising Langtree Charter's campus are owned by Red Apple and leased to the school.

North Carolina Charter Educational Foundation is also the chartering party of the Troutman school.

In a document related to the Cabarrus school, foundation leaders talk about the creation of a school "system," which does not differ significantly from a school district.

And Iredell-Statesville Schools Superintendant Brady Johnson said that's just not what was intended when the idea for charter schools was hatched some three decades ago.

"When charter schools started, the idea was to have an environment where you relax the rules a little and you let innovation flow," he said. "And then you share the best parts of that innovation with the public schools. That hasn't happened."

Instead, Johnson said, the proliferation of charter schools has created a nearly antagonistic relationship between public schools and charters.

"People are largely of the opinion that competition is a good thing, and I will agree with them to a point," Johnson said. "But when you are talking about competition when it comes to education, you are talking about our children and you are implying winners and losers."

Johnson said the main problem is charters get all the benefits of public schools but none of the attending aggravation.

"If you are going to have schools that are deregulated, then untie everyone's hands," he said. "Let's all play on the same, level playing field and be held to the same standards. In all aspects of education, including facilities and the way buildings are built."

More to come

Reynolds called charter schools a "giant jigsaw puzzle,” but many others have called them "cookie-cutter schools."

Charter Schools USA CEO Jonathan Hage wants to see more of them in North Carolina. In April he was in the Tar Heel State and toured the group's Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary with Gov. Pat McCrory and an entourage of top state officials.

Hage told NC Policy Watch, “We hope to earn the opportunity (for expansion) by doing a great job here."

To help with the endeavor, Hage has the ear -- and padded the campaign fund with $2,500 -- of state law makers like state Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph County), who last year sponsored a bill calling for the "fast track replication of high quality charter schools."

And legislation continues to make it easier for charter schools to open in North Carolina.

In 2010, a large number of candidates for North Carolina General Assembly seats ran on platforms that included planks for school choice.

The following year, after many of them won those seats, the General Assembly lifted a 100-school cap on charters schools.

Only 98 charter schools opened and stayed in operation between the allowance for charter schools in 1997 and the lifting of the cap four years ago. Last year there were 148, and 12 more are cleared to open in August.

In 1997, $16 million in tax dollars were spent on them. For the current school year that number increased 19-fold, to $304 million.

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What is a charter school?

A charter school is a public school established by North Carolina as a way to “improve student learning” and “encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods.” Approved charter schools operate independently from other local public school, but any student eligible for enrollment in a state public school is eligible for any charter. The state board of education allocates public money to charter schools for each pupil enrolled at the school.

Charter school growth in N.C.

2011-12: 98

2012-13: 105

2013-14: 124

2014-15: 148

Charter schools in Iredell

» American Renaissance Elementary School

132 E. Broad St., Statesville

K-5; opened 1999

» American Renaissance Middle School

217 S. Center St., Statesville

6-8; opened in 1999

» Success Institute Charter School

1424 Rickert St., Statesville

K-8; opened 2000

» Langtree Academy

154 Foundation Court, Mooresville

K-6 (adding grades each year eventually to 12); opened 2013

» Pine Lake Preparatory

104 Yellow Wood Circle, Mooresville

K-12; opened 2007

» Iredell Charter Academy

1217 Charlotte Highway, Troutman

K-6 (plans to 8 and perhaps to 12); to open in 2016

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