Florida charter school finds champion as it fights for survival

Osceola County School Board member Jon Arguello continues to defend American Classical Charter Academy in St. Cloud as a worthy example of school choice for families despite findings that the school is nearly $800,000 in debt, has failed to meet payroll and operating expenses, and is facing eviction.

A Florida charter school that closed after a judge upheld the school board’s decision to revoke its charter has found an unlikely ally – a school board member.

Osceola County School Board member Jon Arguello, whose vocal support for education choice sometimes puts him at odds with his fellow board members, was the only board member who voted against terminating the contract of American Classical Academy. He said the vote was hypocritical.

“If the roles were reversed, they’d be looking to close us,” he said after listening to a parade of parent testimonials about how their children had gone from struggling to thriving after moving to the charter school. “They’re outperforming our schools, and now we’re going to take away an option for parents who have a school that’s outperforming ours. It seems incredible that we’re bringing this up.”

School board members voted 4-1 on April 5 to revoke the charter upon the recommendation of Superintendent Debra Pace, who cited financial problems. In a letter to the board, she said expenditures at the end of 2021 were more than $600,000 in the red. The school also lost $178,000 in December, with the loss rising to more than $182,000, causing the school not to meet its obligations of funding payroll and operating expenses.

The school also was behind in its lease payments and already in the middle of an eviction process.

Pace said that even though the school would have 90 days to resolve the issues, the action had to be taken before the end of the 2021-22 school year to comply with state law.

“We don’t like to do a closure ever, but there’s a process that’s involved,” she said. “This was not a decision I took lightly, but I don’t want to wait until June and have an eviction go into place.”

Even before the vote was taken, school founder Mark Gotz prepared to file an appeal. Administrative Law Judge Lynne Quimby-Pennock sided with the school district.

“The clear and convincing evidence demonstrates that the school board had sufficient basis to move for the termination of ACCA’s (American Classical Charter Academy’s) charter pursuant (to a section of state law),” Quimby-Pennock wrote in a 65-page order.

As examples of the issues in the case, the judge wrote that only 10 of the school’s 28 teachers were certified and that students were not properly provided exceptional-student education services “because there was no certified ESE teacher providing instruction on campus for August and most of September 2021.”

Leaders for the charter school have promised to appeal the judge’s decision.

“We believe that we shall prevail,” according to a statement on the website titled “Gross injustice dealt to the students of Osceola County.”

Meanwhile, the parents of the 330 students who attended the school have scrambled to find other options as district schools opened Wednesday. Several spoke in support of the charter school during the April 5 meeting.

“Please don’t shut us down; help give us a hand,” said Kathryn Leslie, whose five children attend the American Classical Charter Academy. She said she chose the school because she liked its classical approach to education.

“Our students matter, and the school is worth saving,” she said.

Arguello said he plans to write a letter to Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr., a former charter school employee and former state senator who supported education choice, to see if anything can be done to make it easier for charter schools like American Classical Charter Academy to stay open and offer choices to families.

“This school is providing a valuable service to the community,” Arguello said. “We need charter schools to survive.”

He said the school, which has been operating only three years, got hit by the coronavirus pandemic shortly after it opened. Pointing to staffing shortages and budget issues plaguing district schools in his county, he said the charter school is being penalized despite facing the same challenges.

He called school board members’ claims during the board meeting that the governing board members of the charter school are from out of state irrelevant.

“If we didn’t get money from the government, we could not have our doors open now,” he said. “We need some crusaders and some lawyers who are willing to stick their necks out for these kids.”