MOREHEAD CITY — The State Board of Education approved an agreement Wednesday to allow Cape Lookout Marine Science High School to operate under a new charter until June 30, 2014.
While the state provided $159,000, that’s $50,000 less than the school had expected to receive based on average student enrollment.
So it may only partly fund teachers, if at all, for the first semester that ends later this month.
The school’s board of directors will meet Tuesday to figure out how state funds provided just prior to the Christmas break for the first semester will be spent.
And teachers voted Wednesday to back whatever the board decides.
Meanwhile, the school will hold an open house from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday for current students, prospective students and community members to meet the staff.
Enrollment is under way for the second semester, which begins Jan. 23.
School employees have worked without pay since August while the school and State Board of Education continued legal battles over whether the school would keep its charter after the state cited concerns over the school’s low test scores and finances. Those issues have since been rectified, and a judge ordered Dec. 19 that the state pay the school for services for the first semester.
The school’s board had originally planned to use part of those funds to pay staff, but board chairman Barbara Johnson said Thursday the state didn’t provide all the school expected.
“We had reported 64 for our average student enrollment. They cut us back 10 students and provided funds based on 54 students,” she said. “That gave us a $50,000 deficit we hadn’t planned on.”
While the school could appeal the funding decision, she said the school has already gone through too much legal haggling.
After discussing the situation with teachers, Ms. Johnson said they voted to support whatever decision the board makes.
Cape Lookout science teacher Gregory Shanton said Thursday, “If we get back pay taken out it could bring us close to a negative fund balance. One of the stipulations to stay open is the school can’t show a negative fund balance. We haven’t suffered this far to watch the school close now. If we can help the school get through this year, hopefully we’ll get full funding for next year.”
The agreement approved Wednesday by the state board includes stipulations the school must meet in order to keep its charter, which Ms. Johnson believes the school can abide by.
“The agreement simply reiterates what the state law stipulates, which is what we’ve always wanted,” she said.
The State Board of Education’s executive committee approved the final agreement during a telephone conference in Raleigh. It was signed by State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harris.
The school’s board had voted down a previous agreement Dec. 3 because one of the stipulations had been a 65-student minimal enrollment requirement. The school serves a large population of at-risk students, and enrollment can vary, and does dip below 65. This agreement allows the school to apply for a waiver.
It also allows the school to appeal if the state finds reason to terminate the charter. The previous agreement did not allow the school to appeal.
Attorneys representing the school and State Board of Education worked out the agreement following the Dec. 19 hearing in Beaufort. During that hearing, Administrative Hearing Judge Don Overby ruled that the state had to pay the school for the first semester.
The school had been fighting the state to keep its charter since February, when the State Board of Education voted to set a date terminating the school’s charter June 30, 2012, because of concerns over the school’s low test scores and financial management. But the school appealed that action in July, with no final ruling yet given by the judge.
Meanwhile, Judge Overby scheduled the Dec. 19 hearing to hear evidence on a motion filed Dec. 5 by the school’s attorney Mario White that the judge recuse himself from the case.
Mr. White filed the motion over a concern the judge may have had a possible conflict of interest or lack of impartiality.
The request, according to the motion, was because of “ex-parte communications” the judge may have had with outside parties that could affect the ruling.
Judge Overby denied the motion to recuse. In a telephone interview Dec. 19 following the hearing, he said he did not feel his communication with outside parties had been inappropriate. He did not specify who the outside parties were, but he did talk with The News-Times several times.
Judge Overby had also encouraged attorneys to continue working to resolve their differences.
The judge, during the telephone interview Dec. 19, said he had not issued a final ruling on the July appeal hoping the two parties would work out an agreement that allowed the school to keep its charter.
Since that time several court actions have taken place, with Judge Overby presiding, but not issuing a final decision.
Judge Overby said once a final agreement was reached, the school could file for dismissal of the case, which would then allow the school to begin receiving state funds on a regular basis. Ms. Johnson didn’t state by presstime what the school planned to do.
During the year of legal battles, students have persevered and are now preparing for end-of-semester exams.
Freshman Berucha Cintron said she was glad an agreement had been reached so she can continue at the school.
“It’s fewer people here so you feel like you can connect more with the teachers,” she said.
Senior Tabitha Byrd agreed, saying the school felt more like a family.
“The teachers don’t just teach for the money. You feel like you’re their kids, too. Since I’ve been here my life has turned around. I’ve had so many doors open to me.”
After she graduates, Ms. Byrd said she plans to attend two years at Carteret Community College then transfer to UNC-Chapel Hill to pursue a degree in occupational therapy.
Ms. Johnson commended students and staff for persevering through the stormy year. She said the negative publicity has hurt the school’s enrollment but she hopes that will now change and enrollment will increase.
She said many students who come to the school go on to be successful and that’s the word she wants to get out to the community.
“This is a great school with small class sizes and a caring learning environment. Now everything is behind us and we are moving forward with our goal to meet the state requirements,” she said.
The five stipulations outlined in the final state agreement are:
• No negative fund balance on June 30 of both years (2013 and 2014). June 30 is the end of the fiscal year.
• No material findings in the financial audit.
• Student enrollment cannot fall below 65 without a waiver.
• The school must submit an amended budget, approved by its board of directors, to the Department of Public Instruction, Office of Charter Schools, by Jan. 15 reflecting the reduced funded average daily membership that currently exists at the school.
• The school must administer tests in all required subjects according to state policy.
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.