As charters siphon off students, Granville County’s public schools are struggling to stay afloat

By: - November 12, 2020 1:05 pm
Former school board member Rob Rivers

Granville is a cautionary tale for rural school districts that must compete with charters

Granville County Schools is in what former school board member Rob Rivers describes as a graveyard spiral.

As evidence, the former NASA test pilot points to budget problems, declining enrollment and worsening academic performance, all of which Rivers believes will doom the district if steps aren’t taken to stop the free fall.

“We have three competing interests that are not complementary,” Rivers told Policy Watch. “We have a financial crisis that’s due to the fact that we’ve lost so many children to charter schools; and we’ve lost so many children to charter schools because our academic performance has been steadily declining.”

District leaders blame state policies that allow charters to operate under rules that give them an advantage over traditional public schools.

Rivers agrees the district is harmed when students leave for charters. But he doesn’t blame charters.

“The board hates charter schools and blames charter schools for all of our problems,” Rivers said. “The fact of the matter is our schools have gotten really bad and parents took their children out of our schools and put them in charter schools.”

Granville County Schools is a microcosm of more widespread challenges faced by rural districts whose public school enrollments — and budgets — have been gutted by the proliferation of charter schools. Since the General Assembly lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools in 2011, the number has doubled to 200. State funding for charters has increased from roughly $16.5 million in 1997 to more than $675 million. Approximately 116,300 – about 7% — of the state’s 1.5 million students were enrolled in charters, according to Average Daily Membership figures certified last November.

Granville County Schools is losing students to area charters by the busload. District spokesman Stan Winborne says the district has lost approximately 1,700 students to charters over the 10 years — nearly 20% of its total enrollment.

The district’s enrollment in this school year is less than 7,000 students, compared to just under 9,000 a decade ago, Winborne said. He added that the number of school-age children in the county has held steady while enrollment in district schools have declined.

The district is also missing out on millions of dollars in state funding because the money follows students to charters. Today, the district is under-enrolled by more than 2,000 students. That’s enough children to fill four elementary schools; or three middle schools; or two high schools. “That means $18 million we’re not getting in state and local money because of that 2,000-student deficit,” Rivers said.

For example, Falls Lake Academy in Creedmoor and Oxford Preparatory High School are siphoning a lot of GCS students. Combined, the two schools enroll more than 1,600 students. But students are also leaving for Vance Charter School in Henderson, Voyager Academy in Durham and Franklin Academy in Wake Forest. In all, the district passes on more than $2 million in state funding to 27 charter schools that students from Granville County attend.

Because he was outspoken about the district’s problems, Rivers often found himself at odds with fellow board members. Their differences, however, were often over style and seldom substance.

Board Chairman David Richardson

“It’s a pretty bad picture some days,” agreed Board Chairman David Richardson.

Richardson explained that the district was forced to cut its budget by 16% this year. It lost teaching positions, and operates with what has been described as a “bare bones” staff. GCS also funded six support positions without state funding because the district could not do without them, Richardson said.

The future doesn’t look any brighter. Richardson and the board worry that the General Assembly won’t hold districts harmless for COVID-19 enrollment losses again next year, which would mean deeper budget cuts. “We’re even hearing that [NC Department of Public Instruction] DPI might be reaching out to districts to call back some funding, which would put us into an even worse situation.” Richardson said.

Board Vice Chairman Danny Eudy blamed the district financial problems on county commissioners. “If we had the money, we could get our schools to where they need to be,” Eudy said. “They haven’t given us an adequate increase the last 15 years.”

Rural districts can’t compete  

The district’s enrollment problems and consequent financial woes shine a light on the crushing impact North Carolina’s explosion of charter schools can have on small, rural districts.

Larger, urban districts such as Durham Public Schools, the district’s southern neighbor, are better equipped to fend off challenges from charters. Durham is home to 14 charter schools but competes well based on the strength of its high schools, which offer numerous choice programs that parents and students find attractive.

Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education Foundation, a New York City-based nonprofit advocacy group, said the charter challenge in Granville County is an interesting phenomenon because rural communities often fight to keep charters out of their communities.

“Charters aren’t welcome because in rural districts, public schools tend to be the center of the community, with football and sports,” Burris said. “People love their public schools, and they also understand that charter schools can destroy their public schools.”

As urban communities become saturated with charters, Burris said, the national charter lobby has begun to target vulnerable rural communities where enrollment is declining and there is no war chest to fend off charters. “They [charter advocates] see the rural areas as ripe for the picking,” Burris said.

It’s a fool’s errand for traditional public schools to try to compete against charters, Burris said. “It’s not going to work. They get sucked into the BS. It’s all a bunch of crap and they’re always going to lose.”

Richardson said state leaders must revisit funding models to level the playing field so that traditional public schools can compete against charters.

Charters have flexibility in spending their state allotments, in setting their school calendars and in their hiring. “It’s really hard to envision that we can compete with charters when we don’t play on the same field,” Richardson said.“Charters were supposed to be lab schools and try innovative things that would eventually come back to the public education sector. It became direct competition instead of working hand-in-hand.”

Rivers often pushed the board to work with charters. He convinced one charter to allow district students to take advanced science courses at the school in exchange for charter students enrolling in Granville County Schools’ career and technical education and ROTC programs.

“The county can’t afford two school systems,” River said. “They have a niche. Let’s share teachers; let’s share athletic facilities. It was a win-win and I couldn’t get our board to even consider it.”

Richardson agrees that the district must improve its academic programs to compete against charters. “Our product is education,” Richardson said. “We have to offer the best product and the very best choice our county residents have.”

The board, Superintendent Alisa McClean, staff and teachers have improved standards and providing students with opportunities that “we know charter schools can’t offer,” Richardson said. He noted the district’s academically rigorous International Baccalaureate Program is in the planning stages.

Closing schools

The loss of students to charters has so crippled Granville County that the district was forced to close two schools in 2019.

Enrollment at Mary Potter Middle School, had decreased from 464 students in 2009 to 248 in 2019, nearly half. At Joe Toler Elementary School, the number of students dropped from 229 students to 187 students during that span, a decrease of 18%.

The decision to close Mary Potter drew outrage. It was established in 1889 as a private boarding school to educate slaves freed after the Civil War. The board resurrected it as an educational support facility for students struggling academically. It also houses a program for adult continuing education in partnership with Vance County Community College.

Budget concerns and falling enrollments prompted the school board to discuss the possibility of closing two more schools. However, the board voted to defer any action on closing Wilton Elementary School and Creedmoor Elementary School of the Arts until a task force determines whether that is the best course of action. Both schools will remain open through at least the next academic year.

Enrollment at Creedmoor Elementary was 565 during the 2010-11 school year but had dipped to 320 this year. Meanwhile, Wilton enrolled 630 students during the 2010-11 school year but only 261 students this year.

That Wilton is even considered for closure is somewhat remarkable. It’s a success story fort he district and attended by some of the highest achieving elementary school students in the district. The school is one of the more than 300 “Leader in Me” lighthouse schools worldwide.

“Enrollment numbers [at Wilton] suffer because families choose to attend area charter and private schools because of a school system that would consider closing one of their best schools, a system that promises to promote excellence but in the case of closing Wilton, would be punishing it,” supporters wrote in a petition with 1,570 signatures.

Rivers cast the lone vote against delaying action on closing the schools in his last meeting. He said the board’s unwillingness to make tough decisions was the main reason he resigned two years into a four-year term.

“The school board doesn’t like controversy and it doesn’t like to make hard decisions,” Rivers said.

Richardson hopes Rivers is wrong about the graveyard spiral. “If we’re still fighting these same battles 10 years from now, it’s probably going to be an ugly situation,” Richardson said. “I don’t see charter schools going away. I see a steady stream of children continuing to leave if we don’t get some help at the state and local level.”

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.