Judge rules in favor of Riverview in Beaufort County enrollment dispute

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 1, 2012 

  • Here's some quick background on today's ruling by a federal judge that settled a legal dispute concerning the number of students to be enrolled at Riverview Charter School in Beaufort.

    Although Riverview's original charter provided for 380 students over a five-year period, the Beaufort County Board of Education later agreed to add two additional classes in the hopes of improving diversity. Those additions would have 418 total pupils over the school's first five years.

    Riverview claimed to be entitled to grow to 684 students. The school district offered a compromise of 513 students, but Riverview did not agree and sued the district to be able to enroll 684 students.

    Today in federal court, Judge Sol Blatt, Jr. issued a directed verdict capping enrollment at 494 students for Riverview Charter School in its first five years. It is expected that enrollment for 2012-13 will be 456 students, an increase of 114 students over the current enrollment.

    District officials said that the additional cost for 114 students for 2012-13 (at $8,800 per student) would be $1,003,200. The total budget for Riverview Charter School for 2012-13 is projected at $4,012,800, primarily consisting of local taxpayer dollars.

    "We hope that the addition of 114 students for next year will provide an opportunity for Riverview to do a better job of meeting the requirements of its charter and become more representative of the diverse community it serves," said Board of Education Chairman Fred Washington, Jr.

  • Get breaking news, story updates and interesting reflections on Lowcountry schools by following Homeroom on Twitter.

Riverview Charter School will be able to enroll 456 students next school year, a U.S. District Court judge ruled Wednesday.

But District Judge Sol Blatt Jr.'s decision leaves open the possibility that the charter school and the Beaufort County School District -- long at loggerheads over what enrollment figures have been agreed to -- will have to revisit the issue after the 2013-14 school year.

Riverview will be able to enroll up to 494 students for that academic year, Blatt ruled at the end of a three-day trial in Charleston. That's the number the school used to calculate a five-year budget plan included in a revised charter agreement given final approval by the Beaufort County Board of Education in July 2009.

That revised agreement allowed Riverview to enroll one more kindergarten and one more first-grade class in the 2009-10 school year than called for in the original agreement.

The legal wrangling began as a dispute over the number of students Riverview could enroll this school year. Riverview said the number should have been 380 based on the revised agreement. The district said the number should have been 342 because it agreed to expand enrollment beyond the original agreement for only one year.

Riverview filed the lawsuit in late March 2011. Blatt ordered the school and the district to try to reach a settlement in December, but negotiations failed.

Jackie Rosswurm, the district's liaison to the school, said the district made an offer to cap Riverview's enrollment at 513 students, which allows for three classes of 19 students in grades kindergarten through eight.

That's a higher enrollment than Riverview projected at the end of its fifth year but less than the figure included in the school's 11-year enrollment projection -- 684 students for the 2019-20 school year, Riverview board chairman Mike Freeman said.

Freeman said school officials are adamant that Riverview have four classes at every grade level, so the offer was rejected.

The school district argued in court that it never agreed to a school of 684. The more students Riverview has, the more money the district gives the school.

"There's no way I could commit those millions of dollars," school board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said. "To me, that's fiscally irresponsible on my part."

Riverview director Alison Thomas said Riverview never argued in court that the district allow 684 students.

"What we were arguing for was the enforcement of the five-year budget," she said. "What we were seeking was for the district to uphold their end of the agreement."

If Riverview wants to have more than 494 students beyond 2014, the school board will have to approve it.

"With (school board) elections coming up, we don't know who we're going to be going before," Freeman said. He said he hoped the school and the school board could smooth their relationship by then.

The district estimates that the addition of 114 students at Riverview next year will mean about $1 million more in funding.

"That's my concern right now,"Washington said. "I've got to deal with that, and how it impacts everything else we're doing. How does it impact the other 19,000 students who don't have a class ratio of 19 to 1 -- who have a class ratio raised to 22 to 1 and whose academic coaches were taken away?"

Attorney John Regle, who represented the district, said Blatt's ruling did not mention if either side would shoulder the others' court costs.

According to a press release, more than 600 new students have applied for a spot at Riverview next year, so the 114 slots above their current enrollment of 342 is appreciated, school officials said.

"I'm incredibly excited that the court upheld our charter contract as we knew it to exist," Thomas said. "It's very validating."

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content

  1. Trial between Riverview, school district continues; Jan. 31, 2012
  2. Riverview argues school district changed 'the rules of the game' in enrollment dispute; Jan. 30, 2012
  3. Riverview, school district headed to court over enrollment dispute; Jan. 25, 2012
  4. Riverview, school district urged to reach agreement over enrollment lawsuit; Dec. 2, 2011
  5. Riverview sues school district over enrollment dispute; April 4, 2011

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