Dispute: Should charter schools pay to use vacant public school - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

Dispute: Should charter schools pay to use vacant public school buildings?

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Lakeside High School Lakeside High School

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - It looks like an abandoned school near downtown Wilmington may soon have students again. A private group wants to use the old Lakeside High School to house a new charter school called Douglass Academy, but there's a dispute over the price.

There are no students using Lakeside High School at the moment. But NBC's hit show Revolution has used the school as a set for its TV series, and local police have used the doors inside the school for battering ram practice.

The New Hanover County School Board has no plans to resurrect Lakeside High for future classroom space. But charter school guru Baker Mitchell thinks it would be the perfect home for Douglass Academy,  and he is willing to pay to repair it.

"It needs about a million dollars worth of renovation work, but compare that to $18 million," Mitchell said. That's the approximate amount New Hanover County Schools says it will cost them to build each new elementary school they have planned throughout the county.

On top of doors broken by officers doing training exercises, a leaking roof has caused extensive damage inside Lakeside High. New Hanover County Schools actually looked into demolishing it, but decided not to because it was too expensive.

State law requires public school boards to lease vacant school buildings to charter schools upon request.

New Hanover County Schools is willing to lease Lakeside to Mitchell's charter school group, but there's a glitch over the price.

On top of the cost of repairs, the school board is asking Mitchell for $70,000 a year in rent. Mitchell doesn't think that's fair. "The tax payers have already paid for that facility, for it to be used for educational purposes," he said. "I don't know why they are trying to make money off the backs of these kids for a building that's already been paid for." Mitchell says instead of using his funding for rent, he would rather use it for books and other educational materials.

School board members say it is fair to charge rent to charter schools. Ironically, though - film used Lakeside High School free of charge.

We asked New Hanover County's State Senator Thom Goolsby what he thought. He says while the law allows vacant school buildings to be leased for free to charter schools, the details of the lease are left up to the local school board.

"I personally was excited when I heard that Baker Mitchell, who has a long standing track record of successfully running charter schools, was going to spend a million dollars on a building that was about to fall in," Goolsby said. "But I trust our local school board to make that decision based on everything they know, and realizing that they're going to be educating New Hanover County students in a non-government run public school on those grounds, and I would hope that the parties could come together and work something out, so that we don't simply see that building get torn down and thrown away."

The school board has a lease rate they use based on square footage. They already significantly discounted the lease rate for Douglass Academy because the building is in such bad shape.

Some school board members expressed reservations about lowering the price further, fearing that the discount would only help Mitchell's charter school company turn a bigger profit. But several board members told me they would be willing to negotiate the price further.

"Instead of that organization coming up with a plan and sending it to us, and us considering it and sending it back to them, I think the best thing is for everyone to sit around a table and say, this is what I need, this is what I'm willing to do, let's make this happen," said board member Janice Cavenaugh.

Wilmington Preparatory Academy is another local charter school using a New Hanover County Schools facility. They pay about $60,000 a year in rent. But Mitchell says he thinks there is a bit of a double standard at play. When DC Virgo was being considered as a charter school, the school board had agreed to let that building be used free of charge.

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