By Tori Hamby

When Lincoln Charter School opened its middle and high school campus more than six years ago, parent volunteers pitched in to move lockers and pull wiring through the school’s freshly painted walls.

The group effort, said assistant chief administrator Jonathan Bryant, probably saved the school “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Now as construction of the campus’ new elementary school building nears completion, parents will be ramping up their volunteer efforts once again.

“Our parents have a volunteer expectation that comes with being a part of the school,” said Bryant, who added that the $5.5 million building will open to students in January.

Most charter schools in North Carolina rely on donations and volunteer hours from parents and the community to keep afloat. While per-pupil dollars from a student’s home school district, as well as federal and state dollars, follow students to their charter school, no government money goes to capital expenses, such as buildings and facilities.

This means that charter schools have to build or lease their facilities at their own expense. Because charter schools are prohibited by state law from charging tuition fees, schools have to be creative with finding ways to raise money for capital expenses.

“The first few years of a school’s existence are tough for any new groups,” Joel Medley, director of North Carolina Office of Charter Schools, said. “They rarely have access to enough capital to actually build or purchase a great facility so that leaves many to lease until they save over time.”

The lack of funds forces many schools to get creative with their accommodations before finding a permanent location.

“Their initial facilities vary widely from modular buildings to churches to vacant strip malls to abandoned mills,” Medley said.

For the last two school years, New Covenant United Methodist Church in Mount Holly has allowed Mountain Island Charter School to operate out of mobile units on its property and use some of its facilities. The school is currently building a permanent $20 million campus off of N.C. 16.

Bryant said active parent volunteers who pitch in to do tasks, such as campus cleanup and tutoring, keep the schools from paying outside firms to perform these services. A group of parents have helped out in the process of building the new elementary school building by staying in communication with the contractors hired by the school, he said.

“I can’t give an exact monetary figure, but having a steady stream of volunteers does help save the school money,” Bryant said, adding that the school requires the family of each student to volunteer three hours a month.

Aside from fundraising, charter school administrators stress the need for leaders with a strong background in finance management. Even a high achieving charter school can be shut down by the state for mismanaging money, which includes taxpayer funds from the federal, state and local governments, said N.C. Charter School Advisory Council member John Betterton.

Stacey Haskell, director of Corvian Community School in the University City area, said her background as a former accountant and financial consultant has been essential to the process of converting the former minimal-tuition private school into a charter school.

“We (Corvian) have a financial mind and we have an education mind,” Haskell said. “Charter schools can fail on the business end of education because, in the end, we’re a business. If you don’t have the money to operate, you can’t function as a school.”

Interested in opening a school?

The N.C. Public Charter Schools Association will host an information session for area groups interested in opening new charter schools.

Eddie Goodall, a former state senator from Weddington, will lead the event 1-7:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at University Hilton. Registration costs $79 per person, with a group discount rate of $49 per person for groups two or more. A dinner and reception follow the information session.

Details and registration: www.ncpubliccharters.org.