Riverview Charter School will proceed with an enrollment lottery using the lowest possible enrollment -- 342 students -- while it awaits a judge's response to a lawsuit it filed last week, according to school communications chairwoman Courtney Smith.
The school received about 350 applications for 41 openings.
Students are selected for charter schools by random lottery, according to state law, but Riverview probably will use a weighted lottery to ensure it meets minority enrollment targets set by the federal Office for Civil Rights.
Riverview deluged with 350 applications for fewer than 80 slots, Feb. 11, 2011:
Riverview Charter to defy Beaufort County school board's cap on enrollment, Dec. 20, 2010:
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Riverview Charter School has asked the courts to intervene in a dispute with the Beaufort County School District over the number of students it is allowed to enroll this fall.
A lawsuit filed last week asks the Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas to clarify the terms of the school's contract, which has been amended multiple times since Riverview received conditional approval from the county Board of Education in 2008.
The county's first and only charter school opened in August 2009 in Beaufort.
"This action was done to gain legal clarity on our enrollment plan for the 2011-12 academic year and subsequent years," Riverview communications chairwoman Courtney Smith wrote in a letter to parents on behalf of the school's board of directors.
County school board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said he had not yet read the lawsuit but regretted public money would have to be spent to resolve the dispute.
"It's a shame that we're wasting money in the courts," he said.
Washington did not have an estimate of expected legal costs.
How many new students Riverview is allowed to enroll affects the amount of money it will receive from the school district. State law requires charter schools to be funded on a per-pupil basis.
Robert White, Riverview board chairman, said the school has set aside money in its operating budget for legal costs. The budget is composed primarily of public money, supplemented by private fundraising.
DISPUTE OVER GROWTH
The Board of Education and the Riverview board disagree on the amount the school's contract allows it to grow.
The school board voted in November to limit Riverview's expansion to 38 students this fall, which would bring total enrollment to 342.
Washington said that number honors the commitment the board made to the school.
But the Riverview board believes its contract allows it to admit an additional 76 kindergartners, bringing the total to 380.
Riverview officials say amendments to its contract -- including those made to comply with minority enrollment targets set by the federal Office for Civil Rights -- included the higher enrollment number.
OCR said in 2009 that Riverview's enrollment did not comply with the county school district's 1970 desegregation agreement, requiring the percentage of white and black students in each school in the county to approximate the districtwide percentage. To comply, Riverview had to reduce its percentage of white students and increase the number of minority students it enrolls.
Smith said limiting enrollment to 342 students could make the school unable to meet its minority enrollment goals.
HEADED TO COURT
Riverview officials offered a compromise enrollment figure in February of 361 students, but the district declined.
That led the Riverview board to vote unanimously March 25 to seek clarification of the contract through the courts.
The lawsuit claims Riverview's budget and compliance with the OCR agreement are based on a 380-student enrollment.
It says confusion about how many students will be allowed to enroll has made it difficult to plan for the upcoming school year because the school can't inform prospective students whether they will be admitted; it doesn't know how many staff members to recruit; and it doesn't know how many classrooms it will need.
In her statement to parents, Smith said Riverview's long-term stability would be compromised if the school board "is allowed to unilaterally deviate from our contractual agreement and to arbitrarily set enrollment numbers from year-to-year."
She said the school needs stable enrollment numbers to plan for compliance with the OCR targets, obtain a loan to build a permanent school building, create annual budgets and assure parents their children's place at the school is secure.