Charter school one step closer to new home

by Tori Hamby

Officials at Mountain Island Charter School recently announced that the school is in negotiations with the Bechtler family to purchase land for a permanent location in northeastern Gaston County.

The school, which currently serves kindergartners through eighth-graders, will make its new home on 40 acres of land on Horseshoe Beach Road, off of N.C. 16, in Mount Holly. Plans include a multi-purpose complex for community use and classroom space for kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as athletic facilities, visual arts spaces, outdoor learning classrooms, science labs and play spaces.

“It feels that this was always the place that we were meant to be,” Head of School Linda Bratcher said. “The area provides a great creative environment where our students can grow and learn.”

Mountain Island Charter Board Chairwoman Kelly Pledger said her board approached Andreas Bechtler, who owns the land, about working out a deal to purchase the land earlier this year. Bechtler, a prominent, long-time Charlotte resident, is most widely known for founding the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in downtown Charlotte to display his extensive art collection. Although Bechtler, the son of Swiss industrialists and art collectors, did not originally have the land up for sale, he agreed to negotiate a purchase agreement with the school.

Pledger said the school would likely close on the deal early next year and could not discuss monetary details about negotiations until the agreement is finalized.

“I think (Bechtler) saw what we were doing here at Mountain Island Charter and saw the connection that we could bring to this community,” Bratcher said.

The location not only places the school near Mountain Island Lake and its current, temporary location at New Covenant United Methodist Church on Lucia Riverbend Highway, but also next door to Bechtler’s Little Italy Peninsula Arts Center, an art colony where artists can work in a natural environment.

“We think that being so close to the lake and the artists’ colony will provide many unique opportunities for our students,” Pledger said. “We are very excited to move forward.”

She added that Mount Holly residents can expect to see the school have some sort of physical presence on the site by the fall 2012, with construction beginning on the multi-purpose complex.

“We wanted to begin with this part of the project because we just want to reach out to the community at-large and show that the community can be a part of what we bring to the area,” Bratcher said. The complex will be used for physical education classes, school assemblies and performances, as well as community sporting events, meetings, lectures, plays and group gatherings.

Earlier this year, the school’s board selected architectural firm Shook Kelley, Inc. to design and construct the building. The firm met with parents, faculty and administrators to come up with a vision that “incorporates learning neighborhood clusters of classrooms with common space, natural light and some low-cost energy efficient features,” according to a news release. “Building designs that pay tribute to the deep history of the surrounding area are also featured.”

Since it opened last fall, the school, which enrolls 713 students and pulls kids from Gaston, Mecklenburg, Lincoln and Cabarrus counties who previously attended 22 different schools, has been housed in mobile units on New Covenant United Methodist’s property. More than 700 students remain on a waiting list.

The school plans to add a grade level each year until it houses a full kindergarten through 12th grade program in 2015, with its high school program beginning at the start of the upcoming school year.

Because state and local funds don’t cover a charter school’s capital expenses, including temporary and permanent facilities, school officials must rely heavily on donations from parents and the community.

Pledger estimates the school will need to raise about $7 million to cover the project’s first phase. To secure financing, the school will have to pay about 20 percent of the cost of phase one up front.

“If we can borrow, for example, 80 percent (of the cost of phase one), that would mean we would have to raise about $1.4 million on our own,” Pledger said earlier this year.

Board members said they expect the entire project to cost about $16 million.

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