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Legislative cliffhangers and new details on the Trinitas Charter mystery

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.

This story first appeared in Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. Sign up here Sign up here to get it to your inbox first.

North Carolina lawmakers' decision to adjourn without an updated 2024-25 budget left some big cliffhangers in the education world.

More than 90,000 public school teachers are wondering whether the General Assembly might still bump up raises when they reconvene briefly in the fall — and school boards are wondering whether to hold off on approving their own budgets.

Families of about 55,000 students who qualified for Opportunity Scholarships won't get them in time for the start of school, despite Republican leaders' promises to provide additional money. Will that money come later, and if so, will it be too late?

Then there's a question that affects far fewer people — except that it speaks to the integrity of North Carolina's charter school system. Will lawmakers follow up on a clause in the House budget bill that would grant special treatment to a politically connected board that wants to open a Mooresville charter school?

The adjournment means there's no way Trinitas Academy can open this August, as the bill would have allowed. It's still unclear why anyone proposed that plan, which would have bypassed the state's process for deciding who can be trusted with children's education and taxpayers' money.

A detailed plan and a well-known educator

But last week the state's Office of Charter Schools posted 13 applications from schools that will begin the review process this year. 11 of these schools hope to open in August 2026. Two, including Trinitas, are seeking accelerated approval to open in August 2025.

The 528-page Trinitas application paints a picture of the rigorous process boards must follow to win a charter. There are detailed descriptions of Trinitas' classical academy philosophy, lessons, demographics, hiring and retention strategies, marketing plans, governance policies and support for students with disabilities. There's a timetable for opening that includes starting to market the school and holding open houses this fall. Faculty recruitment would start in January, with hiring locked in by July and staff reporting for a special 15-day orientation process as the school prepares to open.

The Trinitas board has a lease on the old Mt. Mourne School in Mooresville. That puts it a step ahead of many boards that struggle to find appropriate facilities. But the application notes the building needs updated technology, safety features, HVAC system and playgrounds.

The application says Boen Nutting, a longtime Iredell-Statesville Schools educator and administrator, has been hired as Trinitas' principal. She served as principal of Mt. Mourne from 2011-2018. I got to know her when she was in charge of district communications in 2018. She retired from ISS last year as assistant superintendent.

The Trinitas budget shows the scope of public spending that's at stake. The first-year budget for the K-8 school calls for $4.6 million, growing to almost $9 million by Year 5. The bulk of that would come from the state, but school districts must also pass along a per-pupil share of county money for each student who attends a charter school — and unlike traditional school districts, charter schools can pull from more than one county. The Trinitas application projects getting almost 300 students from Mecklenburg and almost 200 from Iredell the first year. If that happens, it would bring a pass-through of almost $1 million from Mecklenburg County and just over $375,000 from Iredell County.

All of this is normal. It's the kind of information the state's Charter Schools Review Board and staff will plow through in the coming months to decide who's prepared to run a viable school.

But the question remains: Who thought it would be OK to skip the review, write the checks and make all this happen in two months?

Two developers play a role

Joe Higgins is an Arizona charter school operator who’s on the Trinitas board. He told me last month that state Rep. Grey Mills and state Sen. Vickie Sawyer, both Republicans who represent Iredell County, asked about ways to get the school open faster. Neither of them has responded to WFAE requests for comment. And it’s unlikely they initiated the plan without a nudge from someone associated with the school.

The charter application and other public documents provide more insights into the origin of the school, if not the direct link to the House budget bill.

The Iredell-Statesville school board voted to sell Mt. Mourne school in November 2022 for $6.3 million. The buyer was not named, but county tax records show it’s owned by VWH LLC, which closed on the purchase the following month.

The application says the buyer was “real estate professional Rick Howard, who has a three-generation alumni relationship with the school.” Not only did he attend Mt. Mourne, it says, but so did his mother and son.

Richard Howard is CEO of The Langtree Group, which has been developing real estate in the Lake Norman area for 20 years. State campaign finance records show he’s also a campaign donor to Mills and Sawyer, giving each of them $3,000 last year.

The Trinitas board has agreed to pay the landlord 15% of state revenue, capped at $900,000 a year, according to the charter application (see the lease here). The state money is based on the number of students enrolled, which means rent will be lower in the early years.

Howard could not be reached last week.

The application says that after Howard bought the building, Trinitas board chair Mark Lockman “worked to bring together a board of diverse and experienced community members to serve as the stewards of the campus.” The Trinitas website describes Lockman as having been part of the district leadership at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Iredell-Statesville Schools, who was “instrumental in building the State of North Carolina's first data-based instructional growth model for public K12.” It also notes that he’s a leader in the area business community.

The Trinitas application adds that Lockman was founder and developer of the private Davidson Day School. And a resume attached to the application shows he worked for CMS and ISS from 1990-2000. He’s been in real estate development for more than 20 years, currently as president of R.L. West Development, which worked with Howard to develop Mooresville’s Langtree Project on Lake Norman.

A connected board

The board Lockman assembled includes:

And there are two board members with notable Republican political connections: Susan Tillis, wife of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, and Will Bowen, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry. Tillis’ name was removed from the Trinitas website after my story about the request for special treatment aired last month. Neither she nor Bowen responded to requests for comment.

So it remains unclear how actively involved individual members of the Trinitas team were in seeking the early opening. It’s probably a dead issue with the budget bill stalled, though there’s a chance the General Assembly could still tuck some kind of special authorization into bills passed this fall.

I consider it worthy of scrutiny as an example of a trend among some politicians to view government systems as obstacles to be swept aside if you have the clout to do it. That isn’t going away anytime soon. North Carolina is making a huge investment in school choice. We can debate whether the state’s charter school oversight is effective, but it definitely won’t be if it’s selectively applied.

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Updated: July 16, 2024 at 5:12 PM EDT
Updated July 16 after an incomplete version was posted initially.
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.