State rejects application to open a fifth charter school in Alamance County

Maybe the third time will be the charm for Unity Global Academy, a fifth charter school that had been proposed for Alamance County but whose application to open in 2023-24 was rejected Monday following a 10-minute interview with the state’s 12-member Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB).

Peter Morcombe – a Graham resident who since late 2021 has served as the pitch man for the nonprofit, Financial Reform for Excellence in Education (FREE), that hopes to open Unity Global Academy – confirmed for The Alamance News late Wednesday that the CSAB had rejected the charter school application at the conclusion of a 10-minute interview in Raleigh on Monday.

Morcombe had garnered support from a number of elected officials in Alamance County in recent months. In late 2021, then-mayor elect of Graham Jennifer Talley wrote a letter supporting the charter school.

Alamance County’s commissioners initially voted 3-2 this spring to provide a letter of support for the proposed charter school, which Morcombe had told the commissioners would’ve greatly improved his chances for getting a fast-track application approved by the CSAB, which operates under the state Department of Public Instruction and is responsible for authorizing new charter schools and overseeing their operations.

Last week, Morcombe again appeared before the commissioners and got a unanimous, 4-0 nod (with chairman John Paisley absent due to illness) of endorsement. “This is do or die, and the thing that helps us the most is political support,” Morcombe told the commissioners at their September 6 meeting.

In a phone interview with The Alamance News Wednesday night, Morcombe clearly seemed beaten but not broken, vowing to submit another application for the charter school early next year. “I don’t think we could’ve spoken with the tongues of angels,” he told the newspaper. “You get 10 minutes to speak about why we need a so-called accelerated school.”

The fast-track application process provides applicants an earlier timeframe in which to be considered by the CSAB but requires applicants to follow a litany of conditions outlined under a state policy, pay a $1,000 application fee, and conduct criminal background checks on all proposed board members. “We used to be able to do [open a charter school] in six months,” Morcombe recalled Wednesday night. “Now, they want you to do it in a year-and-a-half.”

The General Assembly years ago lifted a cap on the maximum number of charter schools (100) that can operate in the state several years ago, additional regulations enacted since would appear to kneecap any future charter school operators, Morcombe surmised in the interview.

Along with his 47-page application for Unity Global Academy, Morcombe also included reams worth of appendices outlining details such as: Evidence of community support; curriculum for each grade; a 24-page document detailing the core content for high school electives; a proposed academic calendar and daily and weekly schedules; 43 pages disclosing the results of each board member’s background check; a breakdown of expenses for the 2022 calendar year; an analysis of funding options for a school facility; and the $1,000 nonrefundable application fee.

The curriculum for Unity Global Academy would follow the Cambridge Assessment International Education program (CA for short), an academically-advanced and globally-recognized curriculum developed by Cambridge University in England. The high school curriculum would be based on the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) standards within the Cambridge program, which is similar to the academically-advanced International Baccalaureate program offered at some traditional high schools.

This week, the CSAB told Morcombe and two board members who participated in the interview, “‘If there was any real demand you would’ve brought people to support you,’” the octogenarian charter school founder recalled Wednesday night.

Now 85, Morcombe was a founding member of FREE, which opened six charter schools in Alamance, Chatham, Durham, and Orange counties in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They included: River Mill Academy, which opened as River Mill Charter School in 1998; Clover Garden School (2001); Village Charter School in Chapel Hill; Eno River Academy (formerly known as Orange Charter School) in Hillsborough; Carter Charter School (now Carter Community Charter School) in Durham; Woods Charter School in Chatham County, Morcombe confirmed in an earlier interview.

While this week’s decision likely pushes the timeframe for opening to the fall of 2024, Morcombe remained upbeat. “We can do a bit more fundraising,” he said Wednesday.
Morcombe has said that the much of the initial start-up costs for Unity Global Academy are being funded by private investments, including seed money that he and several board members have contributed to the effort.

In addition to noting that he and his two fellow board members hadn’t been flanked by an entourage for the interview on Monday, the CSAB also took issue with the fact that they hadn’t done a survey, Morcombe recalled in the interview. He and his fellow board members told the advisory board they hadn’t seen the need to do a survey, given that there are “2,000 students” on waiting lists to get into the four existing charter schools in Alamance County.

That’s okay, said Morcombe. “There will be three or four lotteries held in January or February of next year; we can sign up to speak and get the people who didn’t get their kids in River Mill or Clover Garden to give us their contact information,” he explained.

“I’m very disappointed after all the work we’ve put in,” Morcombe conceded. “They set a very high bar and make it very expensive. We’re terribly overregulated in this country, and it’s destroying the prosperity of our children.”

The CSAB announced in May of this year that 20 nonprofit boards had submitted applications to open public charter schools for the 2023-24 school, and another 15 had submitted applications to open in 2024-25. “Accelerated applications receive priority review and must participate” in a year-long planning process, overseen by the state Office of Charter Schools, for the year before the target opening date, “without any expressed guarantee of approval,” the CSAB said in its May 23 announcement.

North Carolina currently has 203 public charter schools, which are operated by nonprofit boards and are open to all students to attend at no charge, according to the CSAB. While tax dollars support their current operating expenses, charter school operators are statutorily prohibited from receiving any taxpayer funds for their facilities or maintenance.