SCSJ's Education Access Work expands to Robeson County

Parents in lawsuit say Robeson County charter school’s enrollment plan was unfair

By Ali Rockett
Staff writer
LUMBERTON – Parents who say they were unable to enroll their children in Robeson County’s newest charter school have filed a complaint with the state Office of Charter Schools.
Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed the complaint July 9 against Southeastern Academy on behalf of the Center for Community Action, a Lumberton nonprofit, and the parents. The complaint alleges the school violated state enrollment policies by opening enrollment for only one day and giving preference to those who attended the school as a private institution.
Southeastern Academy, located just outside of Lumberton on N.C. 41, denies the allegations saying the process was open and fair. So much so that the school and the state received complaints from several parents whose children attended the school when it was private and were angered that they weren’t given preference, according to the school’s rebuttal to the allegations.
Southeastern has operated as a private school since 1990. It started pursuing a charter in 2011 to overcome declining enrollment numbers. It was granted charter school status on March 7.
According to the complaint, it initially held one day of open enrollment on March 8.
Southeastern said 192 students applied for its 180 seats.
Subsequent enrollments were held May 10 and July 23 for vacancies in the third and eighth grades.
On May 28, the school held a lottery for grades where the number of applicants exceeded available seats, according to documentation provided by the school.
Parents maintain the initial one day was not adequate time to enroll their children.
“Just as a charter school may not conduct enrollment or lotteries prior to the grant of the charter, it is clearly contrary to legislative intent to fill the majority of the seats the day after charter school status is approved, before parents have the time and information necessary to make an educated decision about applying to the charter school,” said Clare Barnett, the coalition’s staff attorney, in the complaint.
In its charter application, Southeastern stated the open enrollment period would range from the first school day in February to the close of the last school day in March each year.
But Edward Musslewhite, chairman of the school’s board of directors, who wrote the rebuttal for the school, said state law requires no specific time period for enrollment.
“There was open discussion that it would be impossible to comply with that proposed time period in the initial year of operation because final approval by the (State Board of Education) would not be granted until mid-March,” Musslewhite wrote.
He said this was discussed during the school’s approval process and subsequent training sessions.
Musslewhite further defended the charter’s enrollment process by saying it “was not intended to nor did it give admission preference to the Southeastern Academy students.”
He said only 43 of the private school’s 73-person student body are enrolled in the charter school. They account for only 24 percent of the charter’s population.
Musslewhite did not say however how many former private school students applied to the new charter.
Joe Medley, director of the Office of Charter Schools, said Wednesday his office was still collecting information on the case and was awaiting a ruling from the state charter school board as to whether the school can proceed as it is now or if it will have to reopen enrollment.
Full article available online at Fayetteville Observer Online