Thursday, August 11, 2022

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Divided commissioners vote 3-2 to endorse charter school effort

County commissioners were divided over whether or how strongly to support one resident’s request to support his efforts to establish another charter school in the county, which would be the county’s fifth such public educational institution.

The commissioners ultimately voted 3-to-2 to provide Peter Morcombe with a letter of support for his latest venture in Alamance County, which already boasts two other charter schools that Morcombe established.

As the brains behind the River Mill Academy and the Clover Garden School, Morcombe had high hopes last month when he approached the commissioners about his plans for a new charter school dubbed Unity Global Academy. The British transplant had assured the commissioners that a mere letter of support from the county may be enough to convince the state to issue a charter for the new school, which he pledged to have up and running by August if everything went according to plan.

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The board nevertheless chose to postpone any immediate action on his request after it triggered an ideological debate between commissioners Bill Lashley and Pam Thompson. During their fiery exchange, Lashley praised charter schools as a viable alternative to the “failing” public school system – which Thompson, a former member of the Alamance-Burlington school board, felt compelled to defend.

When he came back before the commissioners on Monday, Morcombe offered some additional concessions to win over skeptics like Thompson. Among other things, he presented the commissioners with a text-book-sized copy of the school’s proposed charter. He also offered to hire a local firm to handle the school’s finances and to ask the state to let the school report directly to local officials, not unlike its counterparts within the Alamance-Burlington school system.

“We would do better with oversight from local government,” he added, “and if we are part of ABBS, parents would have more choices, and school board meetings would be less acrimonious; I don’t think school board meetings should be like the Oscars.”

Morcombe went on to stress that the new school would be genuinely public regardless of whether it’s rolled into the local school system.

“We are a public school,” he insisted. “So, I don’t see how we’re hurting public education if we are public education…We can’t turn anybody away. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough places.”

Morcombe’s vision ultimately drew an effusive response from Lashley, who commended the developer’s plans for the school as well as the crypto-currency investments he hopes to use to cover the project’s $4 million-plus in startup expenses.

“You’re at the cutting edge,” Lashley asserted. “I applaud you for being ahead of the curve not only with the schools but how they’re funded.”

Thompson nevertheless observed that the operating funds for the new school would be parceled out of the state’s allocation for public schools in Alamance County. Meanwhile, commissioner Craig Turner asked for some additional time to review Morcombe’s proposed charter and to compose an appropriate letter on his behalf.

“It might make sure for us to take a look at what Mr. Morcombe has brought in today and let legal take a deep dive and get his i’s dotted and t’s crossed,” Turner, an attorney by trade, told his fellow commissioners.

Turner’s request for more time left Morcombe a bit antsy about meeting the state’s application deadline on April 29. The idea of a delay also went over rather poorly with Lashley.

“I think this is as cut-and-dry as you’re going to get,” the commissioner said. “He’s asking for nothing except for support…This man has a deadline, and I say we work with him.”
“I don’t know what ‘letter of support’ means,” Turner retorted, “so, I’m not going to vote for this.”

In the end, Turner joined Thompson in voting against Morcombe’s request, which nevertheless passed with the backing of Lashley, as well as the board’s chairman John Paisley, Jr., and its vice chairman Steve Carter.

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