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State Supreme Court declines to get involved in private school enrollment dispute

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This article was originally published in the N.C. Tribune.

The state Supreme Court has rejected an invitation to get involved far earlier than is normal in a dispute between Charlotte Latin School and a Union County couple.

Via an order signed by Justice Trey Allen (R), the court declined a request from Doug and Nicole Turpin that sought an immediate review of their case by the high court, in place of a proceeding in the Court of Appeals.

The Turpins are suing Charlotte Latin over the school’s decision to cut ties with them — and their two then-middle-schoolers — amid an ongoing quarrel about the school’s direction.

The couple’s lawyers had argued the Supreme Court should take the case immediately because it addresses a “significant public interest,” namely “a parent’s ability to provide input into their child’s education” and “whether private schools have unrestrained discretion in the way they enforce their enrollment agreements.”

Charlotte Latin and its supporters countered that the case is a simple contract dispute. The school prevailed, in part, at the Superior Court level. 

Long backstory short: The Turpins and other parents objected to some of the strategic decisions Charlotte Latin made after the George Floyd protests in 2020, and the Turpins allegedly exhausted the Latin leadership’s patience for further discussion.

School leaders invoked a clause in their “Partnership with Parents” that reserved the “right to discontinue enrollment if it concludes that the actions of a parent/guardian makes such a relationship impossible or seriously interfere[s] with the school’s mission.”

The Supreme Court’s decision, made on Aug. 30 but formalized on Sept. 5, leaves the matter in the hands of the Court of Appeals, which has been fielding briefs all along

Those make for interesting reading, and it must be said a lot of the action is in the friend-of-the-court filings from Moms for Liberty and the N.C. Association of Independent Schools.

Moms for Liberty sided with the Turpins, while the state association sided with Charlotte Latin (one of its members).

The Moms for Liberty brief, filed on behalf of 13 of the group’s county-level chapters by attorney James R. Lawrence III, a partner at Envisage Law in Raleigh, contends that if the Turpins lose, “no parent, regardless of how civil and respectful their tone, can engage their child’s school without fear of reprisal.”

It further argues the facts of the case are sufficiently in dispute that Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell should have ordered discovery instead of dismissing the Turpins’ breach-of-contract claim. 

And it claims that while the Turpins signed enrollment contracts for the 2021-22 school year — after the broader quarrel between the school and some parents had already begun — they relied on Latin’s assurances that “the school had not changed.”

Meanwhile, the Association of Independent Schools — represented by Chris Smith, the litigation co-chair at the Smith Anderson law firm — contends the contract between Latin and the Turpins was clear about the school’s termination rights.

The broader issue involves a threat to all private schools if the courts side with the Turpin, the brief argues.

“Independent schools are private entities. They are not subject to the same rules that regulate public schools,” it said. “That’s a benefit — an aspect of the liberty of private associations — it is not a problem. The private right of association allows independent schools to define their values, mission, and culture as they see fit.”

Moreover, “amici for the Turpins — as well as the Turpins themselves — suggest that the Turpins somehow had a legal right to prevent Latin from shifting its culture in a more politically liberal direction,” the group said. “Nothing in the contracts created such a right, nor does anything in the state constitution or elsewhere. ‘Mission creep’ does not give rise to a viable claim.”

Ray Gronberg

Ray Gronberg writes and edits for the NC Tribune newsletter and Business NC. He is a veteran journalist who has covered city halls, universities and the tech industry for the Durham Herald-Sun and the Raleigh News & Observer. Most recently, Gronberg was the managing editor of the Henderson Dispatch, covering a three-county area.