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Superintendent could mar jewel in the rough

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002

Three years ago the Citrus County School Board created the Academy of Environmental Science. The county's first and only charter school program has enjoyed moderate success since then, as enrollment and accomplishments of the high school-age students have improved.

But as the academy prepares to enter into an agreement that will govern its existence for the next five years, it needs more than recognition for its achievements; it needs the School Board to protect it from what it thought was an ally:

The superintendent.

Not unlike examples one might see in youth sports, stubborn adults are threatening to spoil the fun for kids at the academy. In this case, it's Superintendent David Hickey and some of his administrators, who are trying to seize more control over how the charter school is run. School Board Attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick apparently is assisting Hickey's behind-the-scenes power grab.

The School Board gave birth to the academy by issuing its charter and appointing members to the school's governing board. Florida law clearly states that the governing board is directly responsible to the School Board. In that vein, the law also says "the governing body of the charter school shall exercise continuing oversight over charter school operations . . . "

But more significant, perhaps, is that the Legislature went out of its way to say that charter schools are independent and exempt from all but a handful of the policies and rules of the host school district.

Given that clarity of mission, it is troubling that the superintendent and his staff are attempting to exert authority over the academy. Specifically, Hickey wants the school's top employee, known as "the teacher in charge," to be supervised and evaluated by one of his administrators, and to have physical access and oversight of the facility, which is on the Salt River near the school district's Marine Science Station.

This controversy comes at a time when the school appears to be really taking off. Enrollment is up, and so is parent involvement. Most important, the 30-or-so students are excelling academically. At this year's Envirothon, the academy's team took the highest honors of all participants in a four-county area, and went on to place near the top in state competition.

Yet, there is room for improvement, and that is to be expected from a fledgling, hybrid operation. There must be lessons to be learned from mistakes and successes over the past three years, and the academy's governing board and the School Board should tweak those with the intent of improving all aspects of the school. Admittedly, it's appropriate for both boards to solicit the concerns of the superintendent, but that's where the superintendent's involvement should end.

This issue is expected to be discussed Tuesday when the academy's governing board brings its concerns to the School Board's regular meeting. All debate should start from the premise that the academy is a jewel in the rough, an evolving innovation that has the potential for much more success and to be a model for more charter schools with different educational disciplines. That's why it's so important to get it right the first time around.

The School Board should not hamper this process by surrendering responsibility to the superintendent, and disenfranchising the academy's staff and governing board in the process.

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