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H.B. 219 Charter School Omnibus Archives - North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools

Q&A with Charter Trailblazer Jason Wray

By News

Meet Charter Trailblazer Jason Wray

A 20-year U.S. Army veteran, Dr. Jason Wray is the superintendent of Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy, North Carolina’s only public charter military school. Prior to coming to Paul R. Brown, Dr. Wray served for eight years as the principal of East Bladen High School.

 Located in Elizabethtown, Paul R. Brown opened in 2013 and serves 200 students from five counties. In addition to its unique status as a military charter school, Paul R. Brown is a funding trailblazer: Last month, Bladen County commissioners approved the school’s request for $70,000 to renovate the gymnasium, making Paul R. Brown the first N.C. charter school to receive facility funds by direct appropriation from county commissioners. Such funding is possible because of a new law—the outcome of a strong advocacy push from the Coalition—that allows county commissioners to provide facility funds to charter schools.

 Kristen Blair, the Coalition’s communications director, spoke with Dr. Wray about how charter schools can optimize success with facility funding requests, impacts of the new law for the charter movement, and more. We include the full Q&A below.

You’re a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army and the former principal of East Bladen High School. What drew you to a public charter school?

Dr. Jason Wray is the superintendent of Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy in Elizabethtown. Photo credit: Jason Wray.

Jason Wray: East Bladen is about eight miles from Paul R. Brown. I’ve known Colonel Lloyd [Paul R. Brown’s founder] for about ten years. I graduated both of his boys from East Bladen High School. So, when the opportunity arrived to move to Paul R. Brown, it just felt right for me to do that. I had been at East Bladen for eight years, so the time to move was kind of ideal. I fit right in, with my military background and a military school.

Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy serves an economically disadvantaged student population—and it’s the state’s first and only public charter military school. Tell me about your vision for this school and the students you serve.   

Jason: The vision is to give the students the opportunity to be successful. We provide transportation to the students; we go to their doorstep and pick them up for school. Parents appreciate that. We serve five counties: Bladen, Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, and Columbus. That’s huge to cover such a wide area and bring 200 kids to this school every day. That’s something that most won’t tackle, but we’re willing to do that to give kids a chance to be successful.

How does the military school structure help instill character traits such as integrity, honor, and self-discipline?

 Jason: It helps get kids on track. For a lot of kids at Paul R. Brown, their parents bring them here because of a reason: They’re not interested in school; they don’t want to attend school. But one thing I tell the teachers and the staff is, “Don’t mistake behavior for ability.” Just because a kid gets in trouble doesn’t mean that kid doesn’t have the ability to succeed and do well in school.

That was Jason Wray: I got in trouble, and I didn’t do well in school. But things change and people change, and mindsets change. So, that was one of the things that drew me here—to give the kids a second, third, fourth, or even fifth chance to be successful.

Let’s cover another first: Paul R. Brown is the first North Carolina charter school to receive county facility funds. In an historic first for the state’s charter movement, Bladen County commissioners voted last month to allocate $70,000 in county funds to renovate Paul R. Brown’s 75-year-old gymnasium. What does this mean for your school?

Jason: The funny part about it is I really didn’t set out to be the first. Once the law was passed [allowing county commissioners to allocate funds for charter facilities] through the General Assembly, I thought … there probably wasn’t a chance to do anything this year. But I was working on the gym and trying to set aside some funds to do that, so I reached out first to the Office of Charter Schools. They directed me back to Lindalyn [the Coalition’s executive director]. I called her and said, “This is what I want to try and do.” She gave me some tips and ideas for how to approach it.

It was really about what kind of relationship we had with the county commissioners. Are you a stranger asking them for $70,000, or are you someone they know has put in work in the community and offered assistance financially? Paul R. Brown does a lot of community events, we post colors at the town council meetings, and we have great relationships with local businesses. There are nine county commissioners [in Bladen County], and I think for five or six of them I have graduated their kids or grandkids from East Bladen.

So, I could walk in there, and they could see a familiar face and we could have personal conversations. That was part of the battle. Then, I had to understand how to put together a product that convinced them to support us. Because again, it had to be something they voted to support; it wasn’t required by law.

What we did was lay out a plan to show that we put a lot of financial support into Bladen County. I laid out all of the vendors. Over the last 18 months since I’ve been here, we’ve spent $783,000 just on Bladen County [vendors] alone. We all know county commissioners are about the purse. We wanted to show them we were really investing in this community, and we needed some help to get this gym renovated so our parents, kids, and community could be proud.

That data about the vendors, and every dime we spent on them, was a huge selling point. They were really impressed by it, and I think that turned a corner for us.

What could this new flexibility for facilities funding mean for the state’s charter movement?

Jason: A lot of the charter schools across the state have, like us, moved into pretty old buildings. That’s what was available, and you have to take what you can get. Right now, charter schools have to foot their own bill for facilities updates or renovations, and they just don’t have the funding to do those things.

Show the county commissioners that you’re doing great things in the community—helping and investing in the community. Work with commissioners on how you can invest in the community, not only financially, but also as a volunteer.

How would you characterize the opportunities ahead for North Carolina’s charter schools?

Jason: There’s a huge market for charter schools. Every day there’s a new kid coming through the doors at Paul R. Brown. Parents are seeing value in smaller classroom sizes and the personal touch that a charter school can bring to education.

When I was on the public [district] side, I never saw that.  Now being on the charter side, you see the advantage with your child needing a smaller, more personal setting—parents can pick up the phone and call the charter superintendent or school director to have a conversation. You don’t get those things on the public district side unless something is going wrong. There’s a huge advantage for charter schools. That’s why charters are growing the way they are, because parents are now turning to a small classroom and school setting for their child.

What do you see as some key or ongoing challenges ahead?

Jason: When you come to a charter school, most folks in the building wear four or five hats. I’m the director, the superintendent, and the data manager; I also drive school buses. That’s true for everybody in this building. You have to wear multiple hats to be successful in a charter school. You don’t have the resources of 40-50 people on your staff to get things done. But the state still requires you to get those things done. In that, lies the difference. That’s my main takeaway in moving from a public [district] school administrator to a charter school administrator.

What do parents need to know about charter schools, and how can they work to help and advance the state’s charter movement?

Jason: Parents need to get more involved with the charter school and understand the process. There are a lot of misconceptions about charter schools. I even had some myself before I came over.

Public charter schools are held to the same expectations as regular public schools. They do the same end of grade tests and end of course tests. All of those things are required. There are no shortcuts for charters the way people assume there are.

I had a misconception that charter schools could do whatever they wanted to do—that they could spend money wherever they wanted to spend it. They’re required to follow those same structures. That’s important because that keeps charter schools in line and accountable for what they’re doing. I think that’s important for parents to understand and know.

What would you like Coalition members and other charter operators to know about you and your approach to leadership? And is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share? 

Jason: The main thing I would say is if you are a small charter school, you have to advertise—what you have available, what you do, what your mission is. If you don’t do those things, no one will ever know.

We go to five different counties. But none of our buses had Paul R. Brown written on them. We were in Cumberland County picking up kids, but parents didn’t know. So, we got the buses painted and put our name on them. And that’s when the kids really started to come. Other parents saw the military uniform and knew that child was doing better, so they said, “I’m going to go talk to that parent.” That’s how you get the word out.

County Commissioners Approve Charter School’s Facility Funding Request

By News

Congratulations to Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy! Last night Bladen County Commissioners approved the public charter school’s request for $70,000 in funds to renovate the school gymnasium. PRBLA, a Coalition member school located in Elizabethtown, is the state’s only public charter military school. The school serves a 95% economically disadvantaged student population. Dr. Jason Wray, a former U.S. Army warrant officer, JROTC instructor, and principal, has served as the superintendent since January 2022.

A first: Facility funds by direct appropriation from county commissioners

The news is especially noteworthy as PRBLA is the first charter school in the state to receive facility funds by direct appropriation from county commissioners. Such funding is newly possible based on a law that passed late this summer. The Coalition advocated intensively for passage of this law.

Funds are also well-deserved. The school has used its facility to invest in the local community, hosting camps, town council meetings, parades, festivals, and more.

Coalition Executive Director Lindalyn Kakadelis attended last night’s county commissioners’ meeting, along with Dr. Olivia Oxendine, a member of the State Board of Education.

We’re so excited to see impacts from this new law already–and know these funds will directly benefit this charter school and local community. Congratulations to Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy, and to Superintendent Jason Wray and other school leaders!

Pictured from left to right: Scott Johnson, a member of the board at PRBLA; Dr. Jason Wray, the superintendent of PRBLA; Dr. Jacqueline Wray, human resources director at PRBLA; Minnie Price, the chair of the board at PRBLA; and Lindalyn Kakadelis, the executive director of the Coalition.

Superintendent Wray stands with Dr. Olivia Oxendine of the State Board of Education.

A view from last night’s meeting of the Bladen County Commissioners.

Charter Omnibus & Charter Review Board Bills Become Law

By Legislation, News

Lawmakers voted late yesterday afternoon to override Governor Cooper’s vetoes of six bills, including H.B. 219, Charter School Omnibus, and H.B. 618, Charter School Review Board. As a result, both bills are now law: H.B. 219 has become Session Law 2023-107 and H.B. 618 has become Session Law 2023-110.

H.B. 219/Session Law 2023-107 makes a number of changes to current law impacting charter schools. The new law allows counties to provide funds for charter school capital needs, and limits enrollment caps to low-performing charter schools, among other things. The new law takes effect for this current 2023-24 school year.

H.B. 618/Session Law 2023-110 streamlines the charter approval and renewal process by converting the Charter Schools Advisory Board into a Charter School Review Board with the authority to approve new charter schools or grant renewals. Board decisions may be appealed to the State Board of Education, and the State Board retains its rule making authority. This change is effective immediately.

The Coalition’s direct role in securing passage of charter bills

The Coalition has worked intensively this session to advocate for both of these bills, and we are very pleased they have become law. Getting any bill passed–from the initial idea to actual enactment–is no small feat, requiring tremendous effort and support from numerous stakeholders. Here’s what that looked like this time around:

  • At the Coalition’s request, member schools began providing input on legislative session priorities, beginning in September 2022–almost a year ago.
  • The Coalition Board’s Legislative Committee then began work to develop a comprehensive legislative agenda for 2023.
  • Following deliberations and conversations with member schools, the full Coalition Board approved the legislative agenda.
  • The Coalition’s communications team worked to develop strategy and messaging around legislative priorities.
  • Coalition Counsel Matthew Tilley wrote these charter bills, submitting bill text to the General Assembly’s bill writers.
  • The Coalition’s Government Relations Team (including Harry Kaplan and Dylan Reel of McGuireWoods and Lee Teague of Teague Advocacy) led intensive lobbying efforts at the General Assembly. This is tireless work, and involves walking these bills through all steps of the committee process. H.B. 219, for instance, had five revisions prior to ratification, while H.B. 618 had three revisions.
  • Coalition members and other stakeholders contacted and met with lawmakers to express support for charter bills and to share input around charter interests.
  • Lawmakers in the House sponsored these bills, while additional lawmakers in both the House and Senate voted to support these bills throughout the process.

Finally, Coalition Executive Director Lindalyn Kakadelis was involved all along the way, working with school members, the Coalition Board, the Coalition’s communications team and lobbyists, and other stakeholders.

Lawmaker support for charter bills

We are grateful to the lawmakers who supported these two bills throughout the legislative process.

Both bills received bipartisan support in the House. We want to thank Rep. Cecil Brockman and Rep. Shelly Willingham, two Democrats who joined with Republicans in supporting these bills and voting to override the Governor’s vetoes. Yesterday, 74 House members voted in support of these bills, while 27 Senate members did so.

  • See how House and Senate members voted on the veto override for H.B. 219.
  • See how House and Senate members voted on the veto override for H.B. 618.

Thank you to these legislators–and to the school leaders and charter parents who contacted legislators to express their views on these bills! Thank you also to Jamila Lindsay, a parent at Lake Norman Charter, who provided the voice recording for a Coalition video promoting H.B. 219.

Coalition statement on veto overrides for charter bills

Last night, the Coalition released a statement from Executive Director Lindalyn Kakadelis on the veto overrides for these two bills. Find the Coalition’s press release with that statement hereABC 11’s story on the veto overrides included Lindalyn’s statement about H.B. 219, as does this Carolina Journal article.

Work yet to do

The finalized version of H.B. 219 did not include the local funding provision the Coalition drafted and sought. We will continue to push for fair funding for charter schools. Our mission is to protect and promote public charter schools–and we know this is steady, ongoing work.