Florida charter school wins again in drawn-out legal fight

A charter school won another victory in a multifaceted legal battle with a South Florida school board.

But even if a ruling issued by the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings stands, the fight isn’t over.

The Palm Beach County School Board created a rule in 2014 that required charters, among other things, to prove they were “innovative” when they applied to open new schools.

Charter school backers argued the rule was intended to stifle competition. Renaissance Charter School Inc. filed a legal challenge, arguing the school board overstepped its legal authority.

An administrative law judge largely agreed in a ruling this week. June McKinney knocked down four specific parts of the school board’s rule.

Those included:

  • The innovation requirement.
  • A requirement that at least half a charter school’s governing board members had to reside in the district.
  • A ban on charters that wanted to open “in the vicinity of a District-operated school that has the same grade levels and programs.”

However, McKinney dismissed some of the charter school’s complaints. For example, the judge rejected arguments the board’s rule, in its entirety, ran afoul of Florida law.

In an interview, Renaissance Chairman Ken Haiko said the charter organization already oversees six schools in Palm Beach County. It wants to open a high school to meet demand from parents who enrolled their children in its K-8 schools and would like similar programs in the higher grades. He said the ruling was a win for charter schools.

“It’s going to make it a lot more difficult for districts to arbitrarily deny us,” he said. “I would expect that we will continue to open schools that we’ve applied for in Palm Beach County.”

A separate charter organization, the Florida Charter Education Foundation, also applied to open a school. Like the proposed Renaissance Charter School of Palm Beach, it was denied under the “innovation” rule. Like Renaissance, it appealed the district’s denial of its application to the state Board of Education and won. Both schools are backed by Charter Schools USA, one Florida’s largest management companies.

But the schools still face some legal uncertainty. A school board spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on the ruling. She said the school board would meet Wednesday to discuss its options, including an appeal.

Meanwhile, the district is also challenging the state’s charter school appeals system. It’s arguing it has the right to deny the Florida Charter Education Foundation’s application, and shouldn’t have the decision overturned by the state board. It lost a round at the Fourth District Court of Appeal, but last month, the school board decided to appeal the case to the Florida Supreme Court.

Haiko said he hopes the cases will be over soon.

“I’d like to put all this behind us and just move forward,” he said. “The only people hurt here are parents and students looking for options.”

This legal battle might not bear directly on a looming lawsuit challenging a massive education law recently signed by Gov. Rick Scott. But it does highlight a principle likely to figure in that case.

The Palm Beach school board’s legal case rested, in part, on its authority under Article IX, Section 4 of the state constitution, which gives school districts exclusive control over all public schools in their geographic areas. If the current rulings stand, these cases would suggest that authority is not absolute. The state can set limits on that authority — including district’s ability to limit charter school growth.