Florida magnet school considers going charter

There are endless reasons why parents consider charter schools, but here’s a fresh one from Florida: The local school district is neck-deep in financial problems.

Karen Carpenter
Karen Carpenter

Rowlett Magnet Elementary, a popular A-rated school in Bradenton, is caught in a districtwide crisis that has resulted in a spending freeze until July and threatens to leave administrators little choice but to drop programs to cut costs.

Instead of losing classes devoted to drama, film-making and music, Rowlett’s leaders are vying for a shot at running the school independent from the Manatee County school district.

“I really can’t say that I blame them for wanting to leave,’’ school board Chairwoman Karen Carpenter told redefinED this week. “They want some determination over their future.’’

Many of the district’s problems appear to be self-inflicted. Superintendent Tim McGonegal resigned last fall as questions mounted over accounting errors that led to a $3.4 million budget deficit. A scathing audit later concluded a lack of oversight was part of the problem. A citizens’ advisory group pointed to dysfunction on the school board.

Florida is no stranger to charter school conversions, with 20 district schools making the leap since the first one in Lake County in 1997. If its charter school application is approved, Rowlett would become the first conversion charter school in Manatee, though, where 4,500 of the district’s more than 44,000 students attend one of 12 charter schools.

The school is in an “exploratory and fact-finding phase’’ right now to determine if the conversion is a viable option, according to a prepared statement from the Manatee County school district.

Conversions aren’t easy. Teachers and parents have to vote on the switch, with a majority of parents taking part in the vote. Support must come from a majority of teachers and a majority of parents.

The school’s advisory committee chairwoman has already asked in writing – as required by law – for Rowlett’s principal to start the balloting process. The vote is set for this month.

If the proposal succeeds, Rowlett officials would have to formally apply to the district, showing a separate governing board, curriculum outline and a financial plan that illustrates how the school will remain solvent.

The district would have to sign off on the whole thing. rowlette magnet

“I would be sorry to see them leave our system,’’ Carpenter said. “But that would be their choice. ’’

And although the top priority is helping students, the proposal might help the district, too, she said, as it grapples with the fallout of poor financial management, including state intervention.

The matter hasn’t come before the school board for discussion, yet, but Carpenter said she felt her colleagues would judge the proposal fairly.

With a daughter running a charter school in Boston, Carpenter said she knows enough to be open-minded, but cautious. One of her worries: whether a private management company would be involved.

“I’m a little biased,’’ said Carpenter. “I’m not too keen on the for-profit charters. I like having a local school board with local governance so there is some control over what goes on.’’

Her other concern is what happens in the future, when the children of parents pushing for this conversion move on to middle and high school?

“What happens to their engagement and involvement … ?” she asked. “I’ll be very interested in how they constitute their governing board.’’

Rowlett’s principal, Brian Flynn, could not be reached for comment. According to the Bradenton Herald, he told parents during a recent meeting that his staff’s financial security was his biggest concern.

Under a charter, he said, Rowlett’s approximately 75 teachers would continue to be public employees, enrolled in the district’s retirement program and offered benefits plans that were “competitive if not better’’ than what they had with the district.

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BY Sherri Ackerman

Sherri Ackerman is the former associate editor of redefinED. She is a former correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times and reporter for The Tampa Tribune, writing about everything from cops and courts to social services and education. She grew up in Indiana and moved to Tampa as a teenager, graduating from Brandon High School and, later, from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing. Sherri passed away in March 2016.

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