School board to appeal decision in Riverview enrollment dispute

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comMarch 2, 2012 

  • TO: News media


    FROM: Beaufort County Board of Education


    RE: District seeks final, enforceable resolution of Riverview Charter School dispute


    Attorneys for the Beaufort County Board of Education today filed a Notice of Appeal from the decision of the Federal District Court in the lawsuit brought by Riverview Charter School. The appeal was filed in order to ensure a full, final, and enforceable resolution of the issue of Riverview's maximum student enrollment in an effort to avoid future conflict and multiple lawsuits. In short, the Board does not want to find itself still fighting this same battle two or three years from now.



    Although the Court's February 1 decision stated that Riverview is bound by its submissions to the School District, providing that it will enroll 494 students for the 2013-14 school year, the decision contains no provision for further increases of Riverview's enrollment thereafter. The Court specifically rejected Riverview's assertion that the School District had approved any increases in Riverview's student enrollment beyond 494 students or beyond the 2013-14 school year. Consequently, as it now stands, Riverview is not authorized to increase its enrollment beyond 494 students, although it may ask the Board for approval to increase its enrollment for the 2014-15 and subsequent school years.



    The dispute over Riverview's authorized enrollment arises not just from financial concerns, but also from how best to ensure Riverview's long-term success as one of several school choice options for the students of Beaufort County. At current funding levels, the annual cost to the School District, if Riverview grows from 494 students to the 684 students it wants, would exceed $1.5 million per year.



    Likewise, Riverview's increased enrollment would fundamentally alter its character from the "small, intimate school" it requested in its charter application and also would unduly strain Riverview's administrative and programmatic capabilities--especially in light of its ongoing efforts to meet its desegregation obligations stemming from its initial student enrollment.



    Concerns over Riverview's growing pains are perhaps best exemplified by its state school report card. Riverview's report card shows that, while it spends over $4,000 per student more than other schools with similar student populations, it is the only school of 23 South Carolina elementary schools with similar demographics not to receive an absolute rating of excellent.



    Since the School District had previously offered to settle Riverview's lawsuit by authorizing it to enroll up to 513 students, the Court's decision is largely in line with the School District's view of a reasonable total enrollment for Riverview. At 513 students, Riverview could have three classes per grade level for grades K-8. However, the School District disagrees with how the Court arrived at its decision.



    In addition to the School District's disagreement with the Court's factual and legal determinations in reaching its ruling, three factors make an appeal from the Court's decision necessary to achieve a final resolution of Riverview's long-term enrollment:



    1. The Court, for complex legal reasons, repeatedly expressed during the trial that it did not have authority or jurisdiction to hear the case, even stating that the Court's verdict would be void. This means that the Court's decision might not be binding on Riverview or the School District.



    2. Riverview sought a verdict authorizing it to enroll up to 684 students, and Riverview has apparently continued to assert its intent to increase its enrollment to 684 (four classes per grade, grades K-8), notwithstanding the Court's decision limiting enrollment to 494 students and the School District's offer to authorize enrollment of 513 students.



    3. In light of Riverview's goal of enrolling more than 494 students and the real possibility that the Court's decision is void, continued conflict and multiple lawsuits concerning the issue of Riverview's enrollment are likely. This threat of continued litigation can only be finally resolved at this time by an appeal from the Court's decision or by an agreement between the School District and Riverview to abide by the Court's decision.



    In other words, unless Riverview is willing to commit to the limitations on its enrollment set forth in the Court's decision, appealing that decision is the only practical way to achieve a final resolution. Of course, the School District is hopeful that Riverview will agree to the limitations on its enrollment established by the Court's decision, but until this happens, the School District will continue to seek a full, final, and enforceable determination of this issue as the best way to ultimately minimize the conflict, cost, and disruption of Riverview's insistence on increasing it total enrollment to 684 students.

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The Beaufort County Board of Education will appeal a recent court decision in a dispute with Riverview Charter School over its enrollment, its chairman said Friday.

In early February, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Riverview can enroll as many as 456 students next school year and 494 in the 2013-14 school year.School board Chairman Fred Washington Jr. said the board seeks clarity about enrollment in subsequent years, through the school's buildout in 2019-20.

"I think it's important to try to get closure to it," Washington said. "Let's not go through this again."

Riverview officials have said they hope to enroll 684 students for the 2019-20 school year, which would equal four classes of 19 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

A statement Friday from the board says that plan is not in keeping with Riverview's goal to be a "small, intimate" school.

Riverview board communications chair Courtney Smith disagreed, citing a 537-student average in the district's elementary schools, according to 45-day enrollment figures. The average middle school has 713 students.

"We're talking about kindergarten all the way through eighth grade," she said.

Smith said any enrollment figures beyond the 2013-14 school year would have to be approved by the county school board. Riverview has only had plans for its first five years approved.

"We've all known that we would then have to submit an additional plan," she said. "But we've also all known that Riverview's plan was for four sections of 19 students per grade for grades kindergarten through eighth. We knew that additional enrollment would be included in years six through 10."

Riverview director Alison Thomas said the school wouldn't submit a plan for the years 2014-15 and beyond for at least another 18 months.

The school board's statement also said a federal court did not have jurisdiction in the case, and Washington noted that the judge stated as much several times during the three-day trial.

But it was the school district that asked that the case to be moved to federal court. The lawsuit originally was filed by Riverview in the Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas in April 2011. Board attorney John Regle said Jan. 31 that the case was removed to federal court because of concerns related to Riverview's minority enrollment levels and the district's desegregation agreement with the federal Office for Civil Rights.

Washington referred questions about the district's motion to move the case to Regle; attempts Friday to reach him were unsuccessful.

Neither side is sure just how much the lawsuit will cost.

Washington said he did not have an estimate on Friday, but hoped to have an answer soon. He said there have been no discussions of either side shouldering the other's costs.

"Personally, we didn't bring the suit, and I don't think we should be responsible," he said. "But that's not something we're dealing with right now."

Smith also was unsure how much the case had cost Riverview but said the school has depleted its legal budget for this fiscal year. If the appeal goes forward, the school will have to use money budgeted for another purpose or raise more.

Smith said the school is about 90-percent taxpayer funded.

Washington said the board will offer compromises to Riverview to resolve the issue out of court.

Both sides have stated they'd like to smooth their relationship.

When asked about that relationship, Smith said the appeal wouldn't help. Riverview officials were not given advance notice of the board's appeal, and Smith said she was surprised by the news.

"We had hoped to move forward from here and certainly not spend anymore time in the courtroom," she said. Thomas also said she was surprised by the appeal.

"I think this is the responsible thing to do," Washington said. "I see a desire for clarity given the ambiguities that we have had (about enrollment)."

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content

  1. More than 600 apply for up to 114 spots at Riverview Charter School; Feb. 8, 2012
  2. Judge rules in favor of Riverview in Beaufort County enrollment dispute; Feb. 1, 2012
  3. Trial between Riverview, school district continues; Jan. 31, 2012
  4. Riverview argues school district changed 'the rules of the game' in enrollment dispute; Jan. 30, 2012
  5. Riverview, school district headed to court over enrollment dispute; Jan. 25, 2012
  6. Riverview, school district urged to reach agreement over enrollment lawsuit; Dec. 2, 2011
  7. Riverview sues school district over enrollment dispute; April 5, 2011
  8. Riverview Charter School's 2011 state report card

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