School board overturns decision to reject charter school contracts

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FL – With $ 950 million in public funding at stake if the Hillsborough County School Board fails to comply with an order issued by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the school board voted 6-1 on Tuesday morning to reverse its previous vote and restore contracts for four charter schools.

The vote came after Corcoran slammed the school board for what he called a violation of state laws when he voted not to renew charter school contacts at his June 15 meeting.

In a scathing letter to the school district, Corcoran gave the school board until July 26 to overturn that vote.

Putting even more pressure on the school board to reverse its decision, the four rejected charter schools have threatened to sue the school district if their contracts are not renewed.

The school board’s overthrow came after listening to 45 minutes of commentary from parents, teachers and school administrators on both sides of the issue.

Nicole Stevens, who has been teaching for three years at one of the schools targeted by the closure, Woodmont Charter School, said many parents of the school’s students placed them there because their neighborhood schools were failing.

She noted that Hillsborough County has 39 public schools that have received failure grades from the state. However, Woodmont Charter School, which has 90% minority students, has been rated B since 2018 and is the highest rated charter school in Temple Terrace.

“I can’t imagine a politically run school board that negates the need for a high-risk minority population for its own political agenda,” Stevens said. “Give parents the right to choose what is best for their child. “

School board president Lynn Gray said Corcoran’s order forced the school board’s back against the wall. The threat of losing state funding combined with the legal fees required to defend the school board’s decision in court would cripple the school system.

If the state withholds the district’s $ 950,000 in funding, the school district would not be able to meet its payroll or pay its bills, school board attorney Jim Porter agreed.

Additionally, as part of the state-approved financial plan for the cash-strapped school district in May, if the school district’s balance falls below 2%, the state has threatened to step in and resume. the school system.

In essence, said school board president Lynn Gray, “we have been charged with a crime so legal advised us to re-establish charter schools.”

“We’ve never been in this situation before where the state board of education has said we’re breaking the law,” said Jim Porter. “To be clear, the state claims you broke the law, but that doesn’t mean you did. Our firm position is that you didn’t. You acted in good faith.”

“The concerns I hear are valid concerns,” said school board member Melissa Snively, referring to efforts by the Florida Department of Education to strengthen the school district to comply with its demands for the third time this year.

The first time was when the school board wanted to delay the start of the 2020 school year due to the coronavirus pandemic and Governor Ron DeSantis ordered the district to reopen schools in August or lose funding. of State.

The second time came in April when the school district was ordered to correct its $ 10 million budget deficit or the state would place the school district in receivership and take it over.

“I would like more local control, but we have taken an oath to obey the law,” Snively said.

At its June 15 meeting, the school board voted to revoke its authorization for the Temple Terrace Charter School and Kids Community College Charter High School, Pivot Charter School and Southshore Charter Academy, all located in Riverview, continue to operate as charter schools in Hillsborough County. .

The four schools are among the 55 charter schools in the county.

Charter schools are nonprofit schools owned and operated by the private sector, intended to provide parents with an alternative to public schools, especially in areas where public schools fail.

Under state law on public charter schools first passed in 1996, charter schools operate under a performance contract, or charter, which frees them from many of the regulations created for them. traditional public schools, but still holds them accountable for academic and financial results.

Most charters are granted for five years and schools are funded by the state. Students attend for free.

However, the same legislation that allowed charter schools to operate in the state also gave the school board the power to supervise and monitor them to ensure they meet the standards set out by the state.

Hillsborough County Schools
Hillsborough County School Board reversed its decision on Tuesday and will allow four charter schools to reopen.

Gray said the school board’s decision to deny charter school applications was not capricious.

“There was real data in front of us to justify our decision,” Gray said.

She said Woodmont Charter School recorded 13 violations, Kids Community College Charter High School three violations, Southshore Charter Academy 17 violations and Pivot Charter School four violations.

Violations included failing to meet budget management requirements, failing to meet academic standards, failing to provide a qualified gifted teacher in the school, failing to deliver an exceptional education program to students and failing to follow the individual educational plans established for each student in special education.

But in his order to the school district, Corcoran said the four charter schools targeted by the school district for closure serve a high percentage of minority students, passed the state’s B and C grades, and that the school board had not provided valid legal reasons to deny their charters.

“As you are no doubt aware, the students who attend these schools come from economically disadvantaged homes, ranging from 100 to 33% of the student body,” Corcoran wrote in a letter to the school board.

School board member Stacy Hahn, former special education teacher and former board member for Pepin Academies charter schools, said she was a supporter of choosing the school as an educator and parent.

She said the board’s decision not to renew charter school contracts was not because the school board was opposed to charter schools or coveted the $ 250 million in funding that the State grants county charter schools.

“It was because they weren’t providing ESE services to our students,” she said. “You can have decent grades and still fail our most vulnerable students. We cannot close our eyes when the laws are broken for these students. “

Gray asked if the education commissioner and his board, all of whom are appointed, really have the power to overturn the decision of a school board constitutionally elected and put in place by 250,000 voters.

Board member Jessica Vaughn said she shares those concerns.

“I am increasingly concerned about the usurpation of our authority by the state,” she said. “The decision affecting local students should be made by local elected officials. This is the third time in a year that the state has threatened to withhold funds. This affects more than 200,000 students when the education ministry failed don’t like our decision. “

The board gave in to Corcoran’s request, but only if the school district develops an action plan for each of the charter schools to ensure that they are held financially responsible, providing the necessary services to the students in the school. special education and hiring and retaining qualified and talented teachers.

“I was elected to provide oversight. These schools will have to be held accountable,” said Nadia Combs, a member of the school board.

If schools do not follow through on those action plans, Porter said nothing would stop the school board from stepping in and revoking their charters again.

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