Florida Board of Education orders reversal of school board’s charter school rejection

All students at Woodmont Charter School, one of four schools whose renewal application was denied by the Hillsborough County School Board, are considered economically disadvantaged. The school is managed by Charter Schools USA, based in Fort Lauderdale.

Florida education officials today ordered a Tampa Bay area school board to reverse its rejection of renewal applications from four charter schools, an action that it took just two months before the expected return of 2,200 students.

State board members unanimously approved an order drafted by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran giving the Hillsborough County School District until July 26 to “document compliance with the law” regarding renewal requests from Kid’s Community College Charter High School, Pivot Charter School, Southshore Charter Academy and Woodmont Charter School.

Like all charter schools in the state, these schools are public schools that operate with taxpayer funds but are privately managed. Over the past quarter century, Florida lawmakers have supported legislation making it easier for charter schools to open, particularly in areas close to district schools that have been identified as “low performing.”

“Ultimately the decision has to be based on what’s best for students,” said Dre Graham, executive director of independent education and parental choice at the Florida Department of Education.

A former state teacher of the year, Graham began this morning’s discussion by saying he views the situation through the lens of students who would be disrupted if the schools were forced to close.

“Our responsibility is to provide an equitable educational experience for students in order for them to become the best versions of themselves,” Graham said.

The board vote followed a report from Hillsborough school district leaders about their ongoing efforts to address budget problems that left the district with a $100 million deficit. When local board chairwoman Lynn Gray said she would not approve any spending that did not benefit students, state board member Tom Grady fired back, asking Gray if she were prepared to commit to not spending money on legal fees to defend the district if the charter schools sue the board.

“If we had equal oversight and accountability with our charters, I think a lot of this would go away,” Gray said. She added that school board lawyers had advised her not to go into too much detail on the matter.

Grady was not satisfied. “It is your job to perform under the statute and under the laws and not according to your personal beliefs,” he said.

According to state education officials, the four schools serve high percentages of minority students. Woodmont is classified as a Title I school because 100% of its students are economically disadvantaged. Woodmont and Southshore are managed by Charter Schools USA, a Fort Lauderdale education management company that has a partnership with Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.

Two of the schools had been operating for 10 years, and the other two had been operating for five years. Southshore and Woodmont earned B grades from the state, while the other two earned C’s.

District staff had conducted a comprehensive review of the charter schools and found no grounds for rejecting the applications, according to a memo from Florida Department of Education attorney Matthew Mears. When the Hillsborough County School Board met June 15, district staff recommended all four contracts be renewed for another five years.

But in what the Tampa Bay Times described as “a stunning departure from past practice,” board members voted to deny the renewal applications. The move meant four schools faced a possible shutdown, potentially leaving families to find mid-year alternatives for their children.

The charter schools received written notice informing them of the decision on June 29, one day before their contracts were to expire. Board members alleged problems with services to students who are gifted or have learning disabilities at Southshore and Woodmont as reasons for the denials. They cited concerns at Pivot and KCC High School about financial stability and academic performance.

On June 23, eight days after the School Board vote, state Education Commission Richard Corcoran sent a letter giving the district until June 29 to renew the contracts or show how the denials were legally justified, threatening to withhold state funding if the district failed to comply.

Gray, the school board chair, responded with a letter stating that board members complied with state law. She also wrote that the schools could appeal the decisions to an administrative law judge.

DOE attorney Mears’ memo says the law requires written notice to be sent at least 90 days before contracts expire. The Hillsborough School District said in its letter that the contracts would expire on Sept. 27, a move that state officials said did not fix the legal violation.

“This action did not cure the violation; there is no provision for unilateral extension of the contracts, and a nonrenewal after the school year begins would result in harm to the educational system, students and their families,” Mears wrote.

The memo also noted that the school board lacked sufficient legal grounds for an emergency contract termination and failed to prioritize student academic achievement in making its decision to reject the renewals.

Mears concluded that the Hillsborough County School Board’s actions gave the state probable cause to take up the matter and that the law gives the Florida Board of Education the authority to order school districts to comply with the law and “ultimately, initiate actions against the school boards for failing to comply.”

The issue drew interest from advocates on both sides, with 50 people filling out requests to speak. To accommodate everyone, state board chairman Andy Tuck had to cut each speaker’s time at the lectern from two minutes to one.

Choice advocates included staff, parents and students at the affected schools. Students praised their teachers. Several parents begged state board members not to take away their choice. Pivot principal Steve Schindler said he has received countless calls from district school leaders over the years to help with students who were having issues in a traditional environment.

“We have always gone out of our way to work with these schools to help those students succeed,” he said. “As long as we have space, we get them in.”

Hillsborough County School Board members have called a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the state board order and determine next steps.

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.