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Board studies charter policy

Hernando's charter school policy is much like the state's, except in two areas, which could lead to problems.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2002


Before this year, charter schools were little more than theory in Hernando County.

No one had applied to open one, and, as a consequence, no one wrote any procedures for the district to follow when dealing with a charter application.

With two applications filed this fall (one has since been withdrawn), the administration decided to craft a policy detailing the guidelines to follow when considering whether to grant a charter. Much of the 11-page document, which comes before the School Board tonight for consideration, simply parrots state statutes.

The county policy does not match the law in two key areas, though. If unchanged, they could prove troublesome as more groups seek to create charter schools here.

First, in the "eligibility to apply" section, the school district's proposed rule would require an applicant to become a nonprofit organization before receiving charter approval. State law requires a charter school to be operated by or as a nonprofit. But it does not mandate that an applicant must file for nonprofit status before gaining the charter.

In fact, the law only specifies that applicants may include "an individual, teachers, parents, a group of individuals, a municipality or a legal entity organized under the laws of this state."

Second, under the "number of schools" section, the county policy would allow "no more than three newly created charter schools and three existing public schools converted to charter" to be established "at any one time."

State law says that a school district of 50,000 or fewer students may have up to 12 charter schools. Existing public schools that convert to charter status would not be counted against that number. The law makes no provisions for an application limit or a reduction in the permitted number, although the district could seek to increase the total.

If the district were to deny an otherwise qualified charter applicant based on such a policy and were challenged, "that wouldn't bode very well for them," said Cathy Wooley-Brown, director of the Florida Charter School Resource Center at the University of South Florida.

Lee F. Arnold, chairman of the Florida Charter School Review Panel, cautioned the School Board to act appropriately.

"In fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide high quality public education, the state of Florida has unambiguously embraced school choice, allowing parents to choose the school environment best suited for their child. Charter schools are among such options," Arnold said.

"School districts must implement the statute's mandates and intent," he said. "Thus, any group of individuals may pursue a charter school application. Once that application is approved, the formation of a nonprofit organization -- a ministerial act -- can be accomplished. And application moratoriums, or "go slow' policies, conflict with the statute's mandates as evidenced by the State Board of Education's recent overturning of a Hillsborough County application moratorium."

Two Hernando board members said Monday they were concerned that their policy might include such problems.

"Obviously, anything we're going to do that would jeopardize a charter school and then be challenged because of what our policy says is something we have to look into," Chairman John Druzbick said.

He noted that he had asked staff members during a recent workshop how many charter schools the district can have, but received no answer. He said he would abide by the statute.

"If 12 applications come in and they all qualify, we have to have 12," Druzbick said. "There's nothing we can do about it."

Board member Robert Wiggins said he wanted to hear the reasoning behind the seeming incongruity, although he welcomed the idea of forcing the mainstream public schools to compete with charter schools.

"I can't imagine Karen Gaffney is not aware of the state policy," Wiggins said, referring to the board's lawyer.

Gaffney was not available for comment Monday.

Wiggins had less worry with the proposed policy requirement on nonprofit status.

"If the law says you have to be a nonprofit organization to run a charter school, I don't think there's anything wrong with us requiring them to be a nonprofit organization before applying to us," he said.

Charter schools are public schools and receive tax money. Their students still must meet all state-mandated graduation requirements. However, charter schools do not have to follow much of the state education code and are allowed to be more creative in the way they educate children.

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com .

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