Florida school district seeks to partner with local charter schools to meet skyrocketing population growth

Pasco County district officials hope to work with Pepin Academy, which serves students with unique abilities, in nearby Hillsborough County. The 21-year-old charter school is set to open its new technical education magnet high school in August.

Nationally, the war between charter and district schools continues to rage.

In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of Education has  proposed new rules for start-up grants that charter advocates say make it virtually impossible for new charters to open. In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear last week vetoed a bill that would establish permanent funding for charter schools five years after state lawmakers authorized charters but failed to create a funding plan.

Meanwhile, In Tallahassee, Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna blamed education choice for his district’s financial problems and is seeking to block two new charters from opening.

Then there’s Pasco County.

Not only does peace reign in this bedroom community just north of Tampa, Florida, but district administrators are seeking to join hands and sing Kumbaya with local charter school leaders.

Their goal: To create formal partnerships to accommodate population growth that is happening at breakneck speed.

“The war between public and charter schools is over,” said deputy superintendent Ray Gadd, a veteran administrator and the architect of the plan. “Charter schools are here to stay, and we want to work with them, especially the local ones that we know well.”

U.S. Census figures show that Pasco’s population, estimated at 464,697 in 2010, grew to 561,891 in 2020. The county administrator compared the growth to the equivalent of “a good-sized city.”

The resulting housing boom is challenging the school district’s ability to provide seats to accommodate the influx of students. Charter schools face fewer regulations when opening and are eager to expand.

For Gadd, it’s a match made in heaven.

That’s why he and Superintendent Kurt Browning got the Pasco County School Board’s blessing to proceed with the plan late last year. Such a partnership would allow the district to get help educating new students in the Angeline development, a 6,200-acre site that is expected to house 30,000 new residents.

Within the area is a 775-acre parcel – larger than downtown Tampa – that will be home to a Moffitt Cancer Center research and corporate innovation district. The 128,000-square-foot corporate business park, slated for completion within the next five years, is expected to generate 430 full-time jobs.

Pasco administrators have invited Dayspring Academy, a charter school that has operated in Pasco for the past two decades, to consider building a K-5 school in the development with assistance that could include impact fees that the district collects from developers to accommodate growth, district capital funds, or bonding.

Under these agreements, the charter builds and manages the school, though a “step in” clause allows the district to operate the facility as a public school should something go wrong that results in charter school closure.

The elementary school would complement a school the district has planned in the area that will focus on science, technology, engineering, and math for students in grades 6 through 12.

John Legg, a former Florida state senator who co-founded Dayspring, said he would welcome any partnership opportunities. Dayspring has historically focused on lower-income communities on the county’s west side and has recently expanded, opening a new collegiate high school, with plans to open another school in a nearby low-income area.

“We’re really grateful,” said Legg, who serves on the governance board for Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. “We’re now going into our 23rd year in Pasco and we’ve played nice in the sandbox with everybody.”

He said the permitting and inspection process is slow in this fast-growing county. In Pasco, an interlocal agreement with the county lets district officials handle permitting for charter schools that opt into an agreement to do so.

That speeds up the process for the charters, which otherwise would have to get back in a long line for a follow-up inspection with the county. The district arrangement can accommodate a quick turnaround. That’s good for charter schools, which unlike other businesses, can’t postpone opening.

“If we fail an inspection in one bathroom in the corner, we can’t not open the school,” Legg said, adding that the school has a waitlist of 400 students in the area near Angeline.

Pasco district officials also hope to work with Pepin Academy, a 21-year-old charter school based in adjacent Hillsborough County to open a campus near its new technical education magnet high school, which is set to open in August.

Pepin, which serves students with unique abilities, already operates a campus in the county for 400 students in kindergarten through 12th grade but sees potential to expand in a rapidly growing area on the other side of county.

“If they can help us get better, and we can help them, why not?” Pepin spokeswoman Natalie King told the Tampa Bay Times. “We want to be a great partner. What we do is unique, and it’s supplemental in terms of what the district is doing.”

Gadd said that corporate-owned charter schools have popped up in densely populated areas of the county, and while the district welcomes them, it prefers to reserve the partnerships for charters that are independent and homegrown.

“Those schools are great, but they don’t need our help,” he said.