Charleston's charter schools notched a major legal victory Wednesday in terms of the money and services the school district must provide them, but their fight might not be finished.
A ruling from Circuit Judge Roger Young could mean that millions of dollars would be taken from neighborhood schools and given to charter schools. But some school officials said they still don't think Young answered the crucial question: What should a charter school receive from the district?
The Charleston County School Board plans to hold a special meeting early next week to decide whether to appeal.
At issue is Act 189, a piece of
legislation applicable only to Charleston County. It prohibits the district from denying a charter school anything that is otherwise available to a public school.
The district sued the state on the constitutionality of the law and contended that it was special legislation that conflicts with and supersedes the state's charter school law. Young ruled that the law was valid.
Statewide law calls for charter schools to pay their bills, such as teachers' salaries, rent and transportation, with an amount of money determined by formula; charter schools receive the average of what the district receives per student.
But because the district doesn't charge neighborhood schools for its buildings and transportation, the district could be obligated to pay those costs, along with the amount required by formula, to charter schools, and that could add up to several million dollars more going to charter schools annually.
The money for charter schools comes off the top of the district's budget, so that would leave less for the district's remaining schools.
A state attorney general's opinion on this issue previously held that the local law was valid. School board member and ardent charter school supporter Arthur Ravenel Jr. said the district has violated the law by ignoring it, but it could do that only for so long.
"I knew it was going to happen," he said. "I kept telling that crowd. I said, listen, you got to obey the law ... but they didn't pay attention to me. I told them they were going to lose and they did. Big time."
Some of the district's charter schools are almost destitute after paying their bills because they don't have everything that Act 189 assured them, he said. This ruling will help those struggling and predominately black charter schools, he said.
He said he wouldn't support an appeal because the district would lose again, and he questioned how much it already had spent on this case, not to mention the cost of an appeal.
Board Chairwoman Ruth Jordan said she's hopeful that the board will have enough votes to pursue an appeal. The board needs to exhaust every legal option, even if it means taking the case to the state Supreme Court, she said.
Act 189 will financially devastate the district, and the financial strain it creates will slow down the district's progress and potentially even reverse it, she said.
Board member Gregg Meyers said he didn't think the ruling answered the board's question about what it must provide charter schools. Meyers, who is an attorney, doesn't see any point in arguing about whether Act 189 is valid, but he said he would like to know what the law means operationally for the district.
Just because the law says "may not deny a charter school" doesn't necessarily mean that the district should have to hand over everything to the deprivation of other district schools, he said.
But if it means the district must provide on the same terms to charter schools what it does to other schools, that's not an issue, he said.
Greg Mathis Charter High sued the district last year for past and future rent, maintenance and transportation costs, but it delayed its lawsuit after the district challenged Act 189. The school's attorney, Larry Kobrovsky, said this ruling means the school will be able to put more money toward educating children.
"It's a huge victory for school choice," he said.
Reach Diette Courrégé at 937-5546 or firstname.lastname@example.org.