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Shining Rock charter announces change in location for coming school year

haywoodA new charter school slated to open in Haywood in August has been scrambling the past few weeks to find somewhere to put kids and teachers after its initial facility plan fell through.

Shining Rock Classical Academy planned to put modular buildings on property on the outskirts of Waynesville to house the school its first few years. But school leaders pulled the plug on the Ratcliffe Cove location due to higher-than-expected costs and delays to ready the site, according to school leaders.

The school is now hunting for a new long-term, permanent site. In the meantime, it has found a temporary home for the first half of the school year. Shining Rock will lease classroom space in a building at Lake Junaluska Assembly for $6,250 a month.

“Yay! It’s unanimous. We have a home,” Board President Tara Keilberg said at a charter school board meeting Monday night where the vote was taken to approve the Lake Junaluska lease.

Keilberg said she was thankful to Lake Junaluska.

“It’s an ideal location with a great deal of green space and I think families will be happy to bring their children to school there,” Keilberg said.

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The school had been under the gun to find a facility as quickly as possible. The state Office of Charter Schools requires facilities to be ready two weeks before the first day of school.

Further, new charter schools don’t get a dime of state funding — which they need to pay teachers — until they have secured a building occupancy permit.

The school had effectively run out of time to get the Ratcliffe Cove site ready for the start of school — they had to grade a parking lot; run water, sewer, phone, cable and electric lines; haul in the modulars; and get them set up as classrooms. Before it could even begin the site work, however, the school still had to secure an erosion control permit from the state.

The board has known for at least four weeks that the site was unlikely to be ready for the start of the school year, according to a review of public records.

The charter school board had hired a Realtor four weeks ago to begin finding alternative sites, according to its board minutes.

Shining Rock had also informed the N.C. Office of Charter Schools in late May that the site would likely not be ready in time due to “construction issues,” but did not share this with parents.

Concerns over the site were not shared with parents or disclosed publicly until the board announced last Wednesday (June 17) on Facebook that the site had fallen through.

Amber Dodd, a parent who plans to send her fifth-grader to Shining Rock in August, said the site hiccup gave her pause when she heard about it for the first time last week through the school’s Facebook post.

“I thought ‘OK, I have my child signed up for a school that I don’t even know where it is going to be,’” Dodd said.

But she remains excited about the alternative that Shining Rock offers and plans to stick with it.

“It concerned me slightly, but I figured if they have come this far they will get it together before school starts,” Dodd said.

But another parent who was on the fence about sending her kids to Shining Rock has now decided not to, with the limbo over a facility one of the factors.

“There are too many unanswered questions and unknowns now,” said Nicole Chouinard, a parent of two children at Junaluska Elementary. “I wasn’t one of those parents who hated their school. In fact, I love it.”

Among the many challenges of starting a new charter school, getting a building ready can be the hardest.

“It is extremely difficult to find a facility,” said Helen Nance, chair of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board.

Three charter schools slated to open in the state last year were unable to because they lacked a facility as the start of school drew near, according to the state charter school office.

All new charter schools are required to submit a “Ready-To-Open” report in late May. While the state can pull the plug on schools that don’t seem ready to open, the report is aimed at helping schools realize what areas they are still lacking in the countdown to August.

The N.C. Office of Charter Schools does an analysis of each school’s readiness, based on the report. Shining Rock was deemed “ready” in three areas, “emerging” in seven areas and “insufficient” in four areas. School Director Ben Butler was on hand last week when those analyses were discussed at the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board in Raleigh.

“They asked about the struggles we are having with our current property. What we gave them was enough to placate them,” Butler said. “They replied by saying, essentially, ‘Have Shining Rock keep doing what they are doing.’ That was encouraging.”

Some areas that needed improvement were in limbo due the lack of a facility, such as school safety or insurance requirements, and can now be quickly rectified. Other areas where the school was lacking have since been accomplished, such as additional staff hires.

Charter school hopefuls have to spell out their primary facility plan and identify backup options when submitting their initial application to the state.

While Shining Rock’s primary plan was to lease property for modulars, the backup options listed in its application hadn’t been vetted ahead of time.

One of the backup options listed was Long’s Chapel Methodist Church, but Senior Pastor Dr. Chuck Wilson said Long’s Chapel was never an option and was surprised to learn it had been listed as one.

“That must have been brainstorming from their perspective. It was never brought to the table with Long’s Chapel,” Wilson said.

The same is true for Haywood Christian Academy, which was also listed as a backup option in the initial application. Shining Rock had not actually contacted Haywood Christian Academy before listing them as an option in their application, according to the school headmaster Blake Stanberry.

But school leaders pointed out the difficulty of identifying facility contingency plans without knowing what student interest would be and in an application that’s due nearly two years before the school would open.

“It is, of course, challenging to speculate on real estate possibilities almost two years in advance,” Shining Rock’s application stated.

The building at Lake Junaluska is in some ways better than the original site, according to the school’s Facebook post. The building currently houses the Roots in Education after-school program and summer camp. It is largely ready to go — save putting up a few partitions to carve more classrooms out of the space.

It will also be far less expensive. Shining Rock will pay Lake Junaluska $6,250 a month, which is almost half what it would have paid for the modular set-up on the property near Waynesille.

The building could be a little cramped, however, depending on final student count. That could lead Shining Rock to lease space at a satellite location to house a couple of the grades.

“As the classes continue to fill up, we realize that we may need more room. As such, we are searching for a few additional classroom spaces should we need them. I don’t anticipate that being a problem,” Keilberg said.

Jack Ewing, Executive Director of Lake Junaluska, said they look forward to having the students and families of Shining Rock at Lake Junaluska this fall.

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