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House bill would let a politically connected charter school open without state review

A politically connected board has applied to open a charter school in Iredell-Statesville School's old Mt. Mourne School in Mooresville.
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A politically connected board has applied to open a charter school in Iredell-Statesville School's old Mt. Mourne School in Mooresville.

Buried deep in the 271-page House budget bill introduced Monday night, there’s a provision that would allow an unnamed charter school to bypass state review and open in August.

The description is very specific: The “expedited opening” would apply only to applications filed in 2024, for schools in the state’s largest statistical metropolitan area, in a fast-growing county and a school district serving fewer than 25,000 students.

Also, “the proposed charter school will be located in a fully furnished school facility purchased from a local board of education.”

That description applies to Trinitas Academy, which bought the old Mt. Mourne School in Mooresville from Iredell-Statesville Schools in 2022.

Trinitas hasn’t even begun the state review process that ensures its board is ready to educate students and responsibly handle millions of dollars of public money.

But it does have a website describing it as a K-8 classical academy. It lists a board that includes:

  • Susan Tillis, wife of Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis and founder of the Susan M. Tillis Foundation. She’s described as having  “an extensive background in state and national politics.” (Her name was removed from the site Wednesday, after this story aired.)
  • Will Bowen, communications director for Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry.
  • Marcus Long of Mooresville, described as a retired chief circuit judge from Virginia.
  • Board Chair Mark Lockman, described as having been “part of the district leadership at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Iredell-Statesville Schools. Additionally, Mark was instrumental in building the State of North Carolina's first data-based instructional growth model for public K-12.”

They couldn’t immediately be reached. Trinitas board member Mikail O. Clark, a Charlotte lawyer, confirmed that Trinitas plans to open in August, but said he didn’t know enough about the House Bill to discuss it. “We’ve obviously engaged counsel to assist us with this matter,” he said, and hung up before answering a question about the status of the Trinitas application.

From page 84 of the 271-page
From page 84 of the 271-page North Carolina House budget bill.

Mysterious origin

State Charter Schools Director Ashley Baquero said Tuesday that she knew nothing about the plan to bypass the approval process.

Applications filed this year will go through extensive scrutiny by Baquero’s staff and the Charter Schools Review Board, made up mostly of charter school operators from around the state. They look at budgets, curriculum, staffing plans and market data before deciding who’s prepared to make good use of state, local and federal education money. Another year of support and scrutiny normally follows before schools are cleared to open in 2026.

So who’s pushing to skip that process?

WUNC’s Colin Campbell, who noticed the expedited opening proposal, asked Republican House Speaker Tim Moore, who said he didn’t know. Moore referred questions to the co-chairs of the House Education Appropriations Committee: John Torbett of Gaston County, Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County and David Willis of Union County, all Republicans.

“It was news to me,” Torbett told WFAE Tuesday afternoon. He said he doesn’t know who proposed the bill:  “I have no idea. I saw it today, when the bill came out.”

Torbett has years of experience with education bills. Asked if he thinks it’s a good idea to let any charter school skip the review, he hedged.

“Well, I wish I knew the background. I don’t know if there’s justification,” he said. “Maybe they’ve been trying for a while … I just don’t know any of the background or history of it.”

‘We’re ready’

Joe Higgins, of Tucson, Ariz., wasn’t listed on the website as a board member. But he did a March interview about the school on WSIC’s “Good Morning LKN.” Higgins told WFAE he has run other classical schools and helped file this year’s application for Trinitas. And his name was added Wednesday, when Susan Tillis was removed.

Higgins says once the Trinitas board got the school building, state Rep. Grey Mills and state Sen. Vickie Sawyer, both Republicans who represent Iredell County, asked about ways to get the school open faster.

“We said, ‘We’re ready to go. We’ve got about 250-60 students on a wait list, got a principal identified, we have a building ready to go.’ And so I think that’s the goal of the bill,” Higgins said.

Higgins says the proposal to bypass the state’s review process isn’t based on political clout, but on the fact that unlike most charter boards, Trinitas has a building ready to take students. And he says there’s a demand for classical education in Mooresville.

“We focus heavily on values and virtues. We teach Latin and logic. Kids wear uniforms,” he said.

He said Trinitas also plans to offer space for home-schooling parents to connect with teachers.

“The home-school market has grown in North Carolina … exponentially,” he said. “So we’re trying to bring those families into a school setting so they can get questions answered and do assessments and testing and find out how they’re progressing.”

Higgins says he believes the principal could recruit faculty and be ready to open with at least 100 students if the General Assembly votes to scrap its own process.

But that’s a big “if.” The Senate has yet to introduce its own bill. And there will be plenty of wrangling before a majority of both houses agree on a spending plan.

If special treatment for Trinitas doesn't make it to the approved bill, the school will join 23 others that filed applications this year. Those applications — which would show how much money Trinitas is requesting and explain details of the board's plan — have not yet been released to the public. Baquero said Wednesday she's checking on progress toward posting all the latest applications.

Applicants can request accelerated approval, but that would be for August 2025, not this summer.

WFAE’s Ely Portillo and WUNC’s Colin Campbell contributed to the reporting of this piece.

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Updated: June 19, 2024 at 9:56 AM EDT
Updated June 19 to include changes to the Trinitas website and information on the public release of the Trinitas application.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.