School takes fight to state

Imagine Schools says its charter application should be approved.

Published January 26, 2007

LAND O'LAKES - Pasco County school district leaders have a healthy skepticism about charter school applicants, having watched two who received contracts abscond with state money.

So it surprised few when the School Board rejected Virginia-based Imagine Schools in October amid concerns that the company's financial projections looked unsustainable. Board members didn't want to be left holding the purse again if the proposed school were to fail.

The company, which operates 11 other schools in Florida and has approval to start one in Pinellas County, isn't giving up without a fight. It took its challenge to Tallahassee, where the Charter School Appeal Commission will hear both sides Monday.

"We've never had this happen before, that someone has appealed to the state," School Board Chairwoman Marge Whaley said, expressing a degree of uncertainty whether the charter-friendly state government would support the district's decision.

In a lengthy written complaint, lawyers for Imagine Schools contend that the School Board had no grounds to deny its effort to grow in Florida. They write that the district gave school officials no opportunity to respond to criticisms of the school's application and, further, the district went beyond its legal scope in evaluating the proposal.

The lawyers note that state law sets forth five key criteria for considering a charter. Those include a detailed curriculum plan and five years' worth of annual financial plans.

The application "fully satisfies these statutory criteria for approval," they write.

Imagine Schools asked to open a school for 434 children. It did not cite a specific location. Neither did it offer any letters of support from the community.

The group's lawyers say it didn't have to and, besides, they add, there's enough evidence of support demonstrated "by the fact that Imagine Schools operates schools in nine states and the District of Columbia."

Unimpressed, school district officials assert that, lacking any proof of interest from Pasco County residents, they were hard-pressed to see how more than 400 students would enroll. And if they don't come, the school's budget could falter.

"When someone comes into a community without any base, and they had no base, and they indicate they want to build a school in your community, you don't have anything to rely upon," said Nancy Scowcroft, the district's charter school supervisor. "We have to know there are families that want their children in the schools."

The school district also argues that the charter application does not provide measurable goals and objectives, a plan to help the lowest-performing schools or clear reading strategies for students of different abilities.

Imagine Schools rejects those assertions.

"It stretches credibility for a board to declare that a professionally prepared application by a nationally established educational company does not 'address how the school will meet the prescribed purposes' in over 13 pages of describing the particulars," the lawyers write.

Overall, Scowcroft said, districts must take care when deciding who will get a charter contract. Past failures offer clear reason for that.

The Charter School Appeal Commission will hear the case Monday and make its recommendation soon after. The State Board of Education, which generally follows the commission's guidance, will make the final determination of the charter school's fate.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com 813 909-4614 or toll free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4614.