School board hits legal snag as it challenges Fla. charter school appeals

The Florida Supreme Court today declined to hear a local school board’s attempt to overturn the state’s charter school appeals system.

The move comes school districts across the state prepare to challenge a wide-ranging charter school law.

The case may bolster the idea that lawmakers and the state Board of Education can check local boards’ authority to oversee public schools — including charters.

The wide-ranging legal battle surrounds the Florida Charter Education Foundation’s attempt to open a school in Palm Beach County.

The high court’s decision means the school will have to make its case anew to the state’s Charter School Appeal Commission.

But it also staves off the local school board’s attempt to have the high court declare Florida’s charter school appeals system unconstitutional.

That constitutional dispute drew a host of statewide and national groups into the case.

In a statement, Rod Jurado, chair of the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, said the school board was stymied in yet another “attempt to limit parental choice in education.”“Finally Palm Beach County taxpayer dollars can go toward educating students instead of financing frivolous lawsuits,” he said. “We look forward to putting this behind us so that we can work positively with the school board toward doing what is best for students.”

Local school districts authorize nearly all of Florida’s nearly 650 charter schools. If a school board rejects a proposed charter application, the applicants can make their case to the state Charter School Appeal Commission. The state Board of Education then decides whether to overturn the local decision.

The Palm Beach school board tried to block new charter schools from opening. Among other things, it required prospective charters to show they were “innovative.” That rule is the subject of its own multi-faceted legal dispute. The school board used that rule to reject an application from the charter foundation, which is tied to the management company Charter Schools USA. The charter school appealed, and the state board unanimously supported it.

The school board then appealed the case to the Fourth District Court of Appeal. There, it argued the entire charter school appeals system is unconstitutional. The court upheld the charter school appeals system. But it also ruled the charter appeals commission needed to rehear the case.

The school board then tried to take its argument to the high court. It noted the state constitution gives school boards the exclusive power to operate and supervise all public schools in their geographic areas.

Letting the state board overturn local decisions is “irreconcilable with the School Board’s constitutional authority,” the Palm Beach legal team argued. If the court’s ruling stood, the Legislature would have the power to “all but eliminate the function of school boards in reviewing charter school applications.”

The charter school countered the constitutional dispute wasn’t that big a deal, since the Fourth District ruling did nothing new. Two other state appeals courts had already dealt with the issue. Both of them upheld the charter school appeals system.

What’s more, the charter school’s attorney, Stephanie Alexander, noted the appeals court had asked the charter appeal commission to redo the case, and provide a “fact-based justification to support its recommendation to the State Board.”

If the court waded into constitutional issues before the actual charter school appeal got resolved, she wrote, “it would be rendering an impermissible advisory opinion in excess of its jurisdiction because the underlying case is not final.”

Update: In a statement, the Palm Beach School district pointed out the multifaceted litigation is far from over. It pointed to a separate lawsuit involving a different Charter Schools USA-affiliated nonprofit.

This leaves the South Palm Beach Charter case before the Charter School Appeal Commission and State Board of Education to issue a new decision as required by the Fourth District Court’s opinion.

This decision also means our case involving Renaissance Charter High School may now move forward for consideration by the Fourth District Court of Appeal. That case was stayed pending a decision in the South Palm case.

We have reached out to other interested parties in the case for comment. We will update this post as we hear from them. Please check back as we get more information on this developing story.