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Charter school: We'll make our own decisions

The school's governing board rebuffs school district advances to affect policy and choose and evaluate staff.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002


CRYSTAL RIVER -- The governing board of the county's only charter school last week sent a very clear message to the Citrus school district: Hands off.

Hands off the evaluation of the school's staff. Hands off the selection process for staff. And hands off the basic decisionmaking that the board of directors believes is its responsibility.

In a special meeting called to discuss the district's proposed changes in the charter contract for the Academy of Environmental Science, the governing board rejected some of the proposed language and altered other sections to ensure that they, and not the district, will control the program.

At the end of a three-hour session Wednesday with district staff, the board agreed to take its version of the contract directly to the School Board on May 14, acknowledging that district staff will not like the changes. They reiterated that the School Board, and not the superintendent or the district staff, was the charter school's sponsor.

The meeting was the latest chapter in a multimonth negotiating process over the first renewal of the charter school's contract with the county. Just who controls the operations of the school has been the central issue of concern.

The charter school, which is housed in a former condominium along the Salt River near the district's Marine Science Station (MSS), was opened three years ago by the School Board. It serves sophomores through seniors from the county's three high schools. The contract expires June 30 and officials from the district and the academy have been working to hammer out a new five-year charter contract.

But the work got more difficult at the end of January when Hugh Adkins took over as supervisor at MSS, which has run environmental education programs for the district for more than 30 years.

The School Board approved a district suggestion to change the job description for that position, which made Adkins the supervisor of the charter school's staff, responsible for evaluating the employees.

But the charter school's board was not involved in that change, which prompted accusations from some of the academy's staff that the district had violated the charter contract and state law.

"By Florida statute, a charter school is governed by its board of directors, not by the sponsor nor governed by the host school district's administrative staff," said academy board member Gary Maidhof.

While Maidhof argued that a good rapport with the School Board is necessary, he also noted that he would not support anything "which implies transfer of my responsibility to another entity other than this board and I believe that the language proposed does."

The academy board crafted wording that would mean its staff selections would be presented to the School Board, as the charter's sponsor, with a courtesy copy to the superintendent. District administrators want the academy to make such recommendations to the superintendent.

"That sounds like we're asking for the superintendent's permission and that isn't the case," Maidhof said.

Maidhof said that it is up to the School Board, not the administration, to approve the contract and that the contract proposal moves the academy to the next logical level.

"I think we're a different animal than we were when the contract was originally written," he said. "I think we have a proven track record now. We're able to operate in the black even at times when there was a tight budget . . . our students are being accepted into post-secondary programs . . . I think it's time we revised the document so that it reflects that we are an independent board."

Academy board member Chris Lloyd said the contract should be written so "we should retain our autonomy or extend our autonomy."

Another disagreement was the academy's attempt to make a 2.5 grade point average a prerequisite to applying to attend the school. Previously the requirement was a 2.0 but the school's teachers argued that, with the lowering of the statewide grading scale, a 2.5 really equals the same percentage a 2.0 used to be.

"They're asking us to lower our standards," said Lisa Merritt, the teacher who directs the academy. "We're the ones in the classroom teaching these students. We're the ones to have to see them struggle. We do not want to see them come out here and fail."

They opted to give special consideration to students with a 2.5 grade point average but allow those with a lower overall average to apply if they had a 2.5 or higher average in key science and English requirements.

The most controversial issue was the district's assertion that Adkins would evaluate and supervise Merritt and the other academy staff.

"I have significant concerns that this constitutes a transfer of authority from this board to a nonboard entity and as a board member, I object to that," Maidhof said. "The board by statute has the full authority over staff members."

The academy's board added language to the contract stating that they are responsible for evaluating and supervising the staff. They questioned why the district's representatives have never told them why they wanted to change the supervisory structure.

School Board member Patience Nave attended the Wednesday session and told the academy board that the change in Adkins' job description "slid right by me." She told them she would try to make it right by asking the School Board to reconsider their action.

Bob Gill, president of the academy board, said he thought it was wise to choose the wording in the contract carefully especially since he sensed "a lot of hemming and hawing" when he met with district administrators and pushed for the academy to choose its own staff.

"I called that one a no-brainer," Gill said. "To me, their reaction spoke volumes that we've got two different agendas here. From the independent academy's standpoint, we need to protect ourselves contractually."

-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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