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Legislative Update from EQV Strategic May 2022

Utilities Oversight

A new Durham charter school is getting a second chance to open after state lawmakers required municipalities to provide water and sewer service to these non-traditional public schools. The State Board of Education approved a request Thursday from North Oak Academy to delay its opening by another year to 2023 as it tries to resolve a lawsuit with the city of Durham over access to utilities.


The school’s leaders had at one point agreed to give up their charter before changing their mind when legislators mandated that charters get access to municipal utilities. “They have had a difficult time securing utility approvement from the City of Durham for water and sewer, and because of a law passed by the General Assembly, they are currently in litigation and hoping to have that resolved this summer and should be able to proceed with the purchase of the land and up-fit of their facility,” state board member Amy White said Thursday.


Charter schools are taxpayer funded schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. Durham has 14 of the state’s 203 charter schools, giving the county one of the highest percentage of students attending charter schools in the state. In 2020, the state board approved North Oak (originally called Oak Grove Academy), over the objections of the Wake County school system and Durham Public Schools. Durham school leaders argued the new charter would hamper efforts to improve nearby Glenn Elementary School and increase segregation and socio-economic isolation in eastern Durham.

Many of those same concerns about school resegregation were voiced by Durham city leaders when they turned down North Oak’s request to connect to municipal utility service. This prompted National Heritage Academies and North Oak to sue the city.


Durham’s refusal to approve the water and sewer service was cited by Republican state lawmakers in filing legislation that limits the ability of municipalities to restrict charter schools. The legislation requires municipalities to extend water and/or sewer service, if they have the capacity, when requested by charter schools. The bill was included in the state budget passed by state lawmakers in November. At one point, North Oak’s board had voted to surrender its charter to the state. But following the new law, the school refiled litigation against Durham. 


Charter Denial


A Raleigh charter school will have to close at the end of June after state leaders refused its request to allow it to stay open next school year. On Thursday, the State Board of Education unanimously rejected Torchlight Academy’s appeal of the board’s prior decision to terminate its charter. State board members cited ongoing concerns about Torchlight’s financial health and its ability to meet the educational needs of special-education students.

“It was their hope that we would allow them to stay open for this next calendar year,” state board member Amy White said Thursday. “After hearing all of the information presented and asking questions, great dialogue back and forth, the members of the committee voted unanimously to recommend to the state board that it uphold its prior termination decision.”

Torchlight could go to court to try to stay open. But state board members instead urged Torchlight to work with the state Department of Public Instruction to help students finish the school year and transition to other schools for this fall.


Torchlight is among a trio of charter schools who’ve fallen under intense state scrutiny recently over their financial practices. Last month, the state board voted to immediately close Three Rivers Academy in Bertie County, citing an “immediate threat” to students, school employees and the public. Three Rivers had been managed by the same person who used to manage Torchlight.


Last week, the State Auditor’s Office released a report accusing Bridges Academy in Wilkes County of falsifying enrollment numbers to get more than $400,000 in state funding it wasn’t entitled to receive, the Associated Press reported. The audit also accused Bridges, which has since closed, of misusing almost $79,000 in taxpayer funds to support a preschool. On Thursday, the state board voted to file a claim seeking $483,547 from Bridges. 

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