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Cabarrus County Schools May Have To Oversee Virtual Charter

North Carolina's Office of Charter Schools oversees all of the state's charters. The department provides training for new schools that open and makes sure they abide by a whole slew of state and federal guidelines. But next school year, Cabarrus County Schools may be the first district to take that burden upon itself. It's the latest twist in the approval process of what would be North Carolina's first online charter school. North Carolina Virtual Academy took a different route to become a charter school. Most aspiring charters met a November deadline for the state board of education to consider their application to open this fall. The virtual academy didn't even try to meet that deadline. Instead, it went to the Cabarrus County Board of Education in November to get preliminary approval. The board agreed and now it may have to pay a price. "If we knew that we was going to give final approval to that, then it might have been a whole lot different," says Cabarrus school board chairman Lynn Shue. He's frustrated because the state's Office of Charter Schools now says Cabarrus County has to oversee the virtual academy. It's a long list of responsibilities that includes making sure the online charter complies with state open meetings law, health and safety standards, No Child Left Behind rules, student applications, and enrollment. "We got thirty-seven of our own schools that we're trying to run, so we don't need another one," says Shue. It's not clear how much that would cost, but the district expects it will have to hire more people to oversee the charter. The school expects to enroll 2,750 students its first year. All those students' grades would be factored into the district's report card, even though most of them would be located outside Cabarrus County. So how did we get here? In January the Cabarrus County board approved North Carolina Virtual Academy. Then, in February the school's application made it to the state board of education. And that's where it stalled. State school board chairman Bill Harrison set it aside to be considered in next year's batch. "My position was, and the board concurred with me, that they missed the November 1st deadline," says Harrison. That deadline was set by the state board of education in response to lawmakers lifting the state's cap on charter schools. Plus, Harrison thought another year would give the board more time to weigh whether the state should treat an online charter school any differently than a regular charter. For example, should a virtual school receive just as much money as a brick and mortar charter school? "We wanted to look at the economic impact. We wanted to look at a funding formula and we wanted to look at other issues as far as accountability, as far as standards, as far as oversight," says Harrison. But the virtual academy wanted to open this fall. The school's lawyer, state senator Fletcher Hartsell, pointed to the charter school law he helped draft 16 years ago. In state law, there's a February 15 deadline to get applications to the state, which the online school met. And it says the state board must consider by March 15 any charter application that meets that deadline. So Hartsell filed an appeal. This month an administrative law judge agreed with Hartsell. According to the ruling, the state board should have considered the application. If the state board didn't want the charter to open this fall, then it should have just rejected the application instead of ignoring it. In addition, the judge ruled that the state board lost its authority over the charter because it didn't consider its application. And that's why the Cabarrus County board now has a financial responsibility it never expected to have. The state board plans to appeal. Meanwhile, the Cabarrus County school board is left having to oversee the online charter school. The board's attorney says the district will request the virtual academy to pick up that expense if the appeal is denied.