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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Florida Legislature upsurps control of local school boards

from the Orlando Sentinel

by Laura Roth

Two school boards in Central Florida were faced with a similar dilemma this fall — either approve a charter school application that board members felt was lacking, or face a fight with the state.

Seminole County embraced the fight, filing suit against the state Board of Education and rejecting the applicant, a school that would be managed by Charter Schools USA.

Orange County, by contrast, grudgingly accept an application backed by charter management company Academica after being told by their lawyers that they had little chance to win an expected appeal by the company.

Both Seminole and Polk county schools filed suit in Leon County earlier this month, asking a judge to clarify parts of an untested new law that allows "high-performing charter school systems" to replicate their programs in other school districts.

The legislation, which was embraced by Florida-based charter management companies such as Academica and Charter Schools USA, gives local school boards minimal rights to reject such applications, then gives the rejected schools access to a special appeal process.

"It totally takes away the board's absolute authority to decide who opens a school in the district," said Darvin Boothe, who lobbied the Legislature against the new law on behalf of Seminole schools.

Seminole's suit contends that the law doesn't define what it means to "substantially replicate" a school. In that county's case, the application says the new K-8 school would be a copy of an A-rated middle school, North Broward Academy of Excellence Middle School.

The Broward County school has 345 students in grades 6 to 8, while the application for Renaissance Charter at Seminole would have 1,415 students in kindergarten to grade 8.

Ned Julian, the Seminole board attorney, said the law's language is too vague to stand up in court.

At the September meeting where the Seminole board rejected Renaissance, board members criticized the application for setting academic goals below what traditional Seminole schools achieve. The staff evaluation of the school also cited the application for inadequate financial plans and unrealistic enrollment projections.

In Orange County last week, the school board at first rejected an application to open an elementary school called Pinecrest Creek Academy, by a 4-3 vote. The school would be a replication of an A-rated Miami-Dade elementary school called Pinecrest Academy South Campus.

Several board members were concerned that the new school would have the same management as the struggling Pinecrest Preparatory Charter School in Orange County, which had some of the lowest third-grade reading scores in the state this spring and has failed to meet enrollment projections. The school has not been graded.

"State law be damned, I'm not going to vote to add another school to a charter that very well may be in distress," board chairman Bill Sublette said before the vote.

But after school board attorney Woody Rodriguez said each board member would need to provide specifics about why they rejected the Pinecrest Creek application so he could prepare an appeal, the board had second thoughts.

"Do you feel this is a waste of our time?" board member Nancy Robbinson asked.

"In my opinion, we lose," responded John Palmerini, another school board attorney. Christopher Bernier, who oversees charter schools, said state law "provides no means" to address board members' concerns about the application.

On a second vote the same night, the board approved the application 5-2. Board member Christine Moore said that the record of Charter Schools USA overall is strong, even if the local Pinecrest school hasn't proven itself.

The Seminole suit, filed by Tallahassee attorney Harry O. Thomas, also questions the part of the law that gives local school boards little role in the appeal process. That new appeal process will apply only to the schools in Seminole and Polk, as well as one in Brevard, this year.

Fifteen other rejected charter applications, including three in Orange and one in Volusia, will follow the old appeal process, which gives local school boards more say.

A representative from Charter Schools USA said four other replication applications in Florida have been accepted — two in Palm Beach County and one each in Pasco and Leon counties.

The first hearing on the Seminole case is set for Jan. 4. The state board handling charter appeals plans to meet to hear cases about three weeks later. or 407-420-5120. Follow her on Twitter @RothLauren,0,1538156.story

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