2 charter schools racing to open

County officials are planning alternatives if required permits aren't issued by month's end

If goal isn't met, sites will open in Nov.

August 05, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Organizers of two planned Anne Arundel County charter schools say they are working nonstop to secure needed permits so their facilities can open in a few weeks.

However, county school officials told the school board this week that they are preparing letters to families and taking other steps in case permits don't come together by the first day - or week - of the school year.

"We're really holding out, but planning in the event they may not open," said Jose M. Torres, assistant superintendent of student support services.

Torres said the school system will give the charters - KIPP Harbor Academy and Chesapeake Science Point - until Aug. 29 to provide the necessary paperwork to open Sept. 6, a week after classes start elsewhere. However, if they don't meet that deadline, they will have to wait until the beginning of the second quarter in November.

County schools will assign the children to classrooms in traditional schools, and families have been notified that their children can go there if charter schools do not open. Children's records also will remain at their neighborhood schools until the charter schools open, Torres said.

Charter schools receive public funding but operate somewhat independently from county school systems. In Maryland, the State Board of Education ruled that local districts must review facilities to ensure they meet safety and other standards.

KIPP Harbor Academy, which has enrolled more than 70 fifth-graders for its first year, is developing a lease for space at the new Edgewater campus of Baltimore-based Sojourner-Douglass College, a historically black institution. An architect is working "24 hours a day" to determine any inconsistencies between the college building and what's required in the zoning code for educational facilities, said Principal B. Jallon Brown.

KIPP, or "Knowledge Is Power Program," is part of a national organization of charter schools. KIPP Harbor Academy targeted its recruitment in Annapolis' subsidized-housing complexes for its college prep program.

School leaders first learned about the space in January, Brown said. It wasn't ideal - they hoped to locate within Annapolis rather than Edgewater and also had some concerns about the size of the classrooms, she said. On the other hand, meeting on a college campus supports KIPP's emphasis on preparing students for higher education.

But legal issues have arisen lately. The property is governed by a restrictive covenant that requires it to be used for Anne Arundel County public school facilities. An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge allowed construction of the building last year because the school system and Sojourner-Douglass have worked together for more than a decade. But last month, a state appeals court overturned the ruling after a group of Edgewater residents appealed, meaning the building could be torn down. The college plans to turn to the state's highest court.

Some contend the opposition is racially motivated, although a church and child care center have also been turned away from the property.

Charlestine Fairley, site director for Sojourner-Douglass' Annapolis campus, could not be reached for comment.

Housing KIPP should satisfy the legal requirement that any development of the land be in conjunction with the school system, said Lizz Pawlson, a KIPP founding board member. However, Pawlson also said officials have other options should this building become unavailable.

"This is only an answer for one year," Brown said.

Chesapeake Science Point, a math and technology charter for middle and high school students, faces its own troubles. Organizers had begun renovations on space in Glen Burnie before the County Council passed a zoning ordinance last month restricting charter schools to properties 3 acres or larger in most residential areas.

County planning officials told the school it could apply for a variance to remain in its building. But that requires a public hearing, now scheduled for Aug. 30, said county spokeswoman Pam Jordan.

More than 120 sixth- and seventh-graders are scheduled to begin classes Aug. 29. The county planning office is reviewing a temporary use permit application that would allow the school to use the building in the meantime, Jordan said.

School director Jon Omural said county officials have been very helpful, and he expressed confidence that the permits could be obtained.

Both schools also must secure insurance and have all staffers who will work with children pass background checks and complete orientation for new hires, according to school system officials. Organizers said after the school board meeting that those tasks would be completed before school began.

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