Published: Sep 15, 2012 12:00 AM
Modified: Sep 15, 2012 09:31 PM
Durham County commissioners unanimously supported a charter school’s request to receive up to $17 million in tax-exempt financing for expansion and equipment.
Commissioners held a public hearing last week on the financing for north Durham charter school Voyager Academy, which hopes to buy and equip a 76,000 square-foot building on 8.5 acres at 4302 Ben Franklin Blvd., according to county documents. The charter school, which started serving fourth- through seventh-graders in 2007, has steadily expanded its grades on a path to serve kindergarteners to 12th-graders.
The financing would be provided by a state of Wisconsin Public Finance Authority, which provides local governments and private entities access to low-cost, tax-exempt financing for projects that benefit the public and promote economic development, according to the authority’s website.
The authority requires the approval of the elected board, in this case the Board of County Commissioners, in the jurisdiction where the financing request is being made. The county has no financial responsibility, and Voyager Foundation Inc. will be solely responsible for paying the loan off, said Assistant County Attorney Carol Hammett.
Jeff Poley, Voyager’s bond counsel with Raleigh firm Parker Poe, was the only person who spoke at the required public hearing Monday night.
Poley said Wisconsin officials created the Public Finance Authority after the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties asked the state to establish an entity that could authorize bonds for qualified borrowers across the nation.
“The thought was having one national issuer would reduce issuance costs for a number of borrowers,” he said.
In April the county commissioners met with charter school representatives. Part of the discussion centered on how some charter schools, including Voyager, lack diversity and do not represent the larger community. Voyager officials have said their population reflects the northern Durham community the school serves and that they are working to increase diversity.
According to statistics provided at the spring meeting, only 8 percent of Voyager’s students qualified for free or reduced lunch. Voyager’s population was 80 percent white, 16 percent black, 2.5 percent Latino, and 1.5 percent Asian.
Last school year, nearly 60 percent of Durham Public Schools students qualified for a free or reduced lunch. DPS’s population was 51.3 percent black, 22.3 percent Latino, 20.65 percent white, 2.9 percent multiracial, 2.4 percent Asian, 0.3 percent Native American and 0.1 percent Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders.
DPS officials have expressed concerns about barriers that may keep some students from attending charter schools, such as a lack of transportation and cafeterias to provide free and reduced lunch to students from poor families. Voyager doesn’t offer transportation, but officials there have said the school does provide free lunches to qualified students.
DPS Board of Education Chairwoman Heidi Carter said the commissioners’ assisting the charter school doesn’t concern her, but in general she doesn’t think charter schools benefit public education.
“It is not good policy in that it doesn’t foster the improvement of public education for all children,” Carter said.
The financing could improve the relationship between Voyager and Durham Public Schools if the charter used the money to build a cafeteria and buy buses, she said.
“Then they would be able to serve a more diverse population of students,” she said.