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Supervisors grant academy permit

Posted on Tuesday, July 9, 2013 at 6:11 pm

MILFORD – Abundant Life Academy got the green light from the Caroline County Board of Supervisors to relocate from Utah to Caroline, bringing 40 new jobs to the area.

This was the second time the Christian boarding school that serves troubled teens had sought a special exception permit to use the former Remuda Ranch facility on Passing Road about eight miles east of Sparta.

Supervisors turned down the request in 2012 due to concerns about security and the possibility of troubled teens running away from the facility.

This time, however, a former police officer from Henrico County and the academy’s lawyer described the elaborate security system the school would have, including surveillance cameras in the teens’ bedrooms, and supervisors voted to approve the permit.

In addition, the Board of Supervisors earlier this year approved zoning ordinance amendments establishing standards for boarding schools.

The ranch is a $6 million facility, and Abundant Life Academy will make $8 million in additional improvements, including football, baseball and soccer fields, said Charles Payne, an attorney representing the academy. The improvements could involve the use of local contractors, he added.

The academy will pay $800,000 annually to vendors, and it will have an annual payroll of $1.6 million, according to Payne. It will also contribute $50,000 annually to the county in real estate tax revenue, he noted.

Supervisor Floyd Thomas asked about tuition rates. The academy owner, Paul Branning, said tuition is $4,800 a month — nearly $60,000 annually — and the average child stays 12 to 18 months before returning to a public school.

The board voted 5-0 to allow the school to move to Caroline. Supervisor Reggie Underwood abstained, saying he had a conflict of interest; Underwood works for a company that provides drop-out prevention services to schools.

The supervisors held a public hearing on the permit request, but no citizens expressed opposition to the school, which might have close to 90 students. However, Thomas asked tough questions before the board gave the school the green light.

Branning has owned the academy for 22 months, but the school experienced some problems before he acquired it. Thomas asked if a teen had stolen a car and driven away from the facility while it was under a different ownership and whether a child protective services agent visited the campus and shut it down.

“As far as a child getting in a car, I can’t speak to that,” Branning said. “We had complaints due to an employee we let go but all issues were resolved.”

Branning and Payne also noted that the academy filed a lawsuit against the child protective services agency for “false prosecution” and won a settlement in the Nevada Supreme Court.

In response to another question from Thomas, Branning said the academy would be willing to pay the expense of the sheriff’s office if it retrieved any students who ran away.

The school will have 140 surveillance cameras and monitoring systems along with doors equipped with card reader lock systems.

The school has two main types of faculty members, teachers and Christian therapeutic counselors.

Supervisor Calvin Taylor asked academy representatives if the school would work with Caroline schools “to see if our students could benefit” from the academy’s expertise. “We do have students in our school system who have issues,” said Taylor.

“It’s a private school and it’s driven by tuition,” noted Payne. “As the school becomes more ingrained into the community, I think there will a lot of opportunity for the school to reach out to the community.” A Caroline resident will serve on the school’s board of directors, he added.

Taylor summed up the board’s acceptance of the academy this time by saying, “Quite a few citizens had concerns the first time this came up, but you’ve taken a totally different approach this time. We see an outpouring of effort” to communicate with the community and assure Sheriff Tony Lippa that the school will have a good security system in place.

Supervisor Wayne Acors asked if the sheriff’s initial concerns in 2012 had been addressed.

“All have been addressed, and they (academy representatives) have done an excellent job,” replied Maj. Scott Moser.