tampabay.com

Charter school will shut its doors

School leaders say they didn't get enough support from the county district.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published March 15, 2007


NEW PORT RICHEY - The ranks of charter schools may be growing in Florida, but not in Pasco County.

Here, the list is shrinking, and the 5-year-old Richard Milburn Academy on Little Road is the latest casualty.

Leaders of Pasco's only charter high school, which went on probation last year amid financial and curriculum concerns, announced Wednesday that they will not seek to renew their charter contract when it expires in June. The 149 at-risk high school students who attend Richard Milburn will either graduate or have to find someplace else to finish their education.

"We did everything we could to keep the program going," school spokeswoman Rachel Lulay said. "But without district support, a program like ours just can't function as well as it should."

In a letter to superintendent Heather Fiorentino, charter School Board chairman Robert Munnelly wrote the school's closing had more to do with "major obstacles" created by the district than with the academic performance of its students.

The relationship matters because the school district is Pasco County's sole sponsoring agency for charter schools, which are public schools and receive tax money even as they operate independently and free of many state restrictions placed on the mainstream system.

Munnelly complained that the district withheld more than $200,000 for six months, forcing the school into a precarious financial situation. He said the district hired away teachers and staff, frequently canceled meetings and delayed responding to inquiries, and placed the school on probation but offered little assistance in creating a corrective action plan.

Given all this, he wrote, "RMA finds it increasingly difficult and nearly impossible to operate an alternative charter high school in Pasco County where the relationship with the district is more punitive and adversarial than collaborative and supportive."

Fiorentino said in an interview that the charter school could make any business decision it deems in its best interest. District officials tried to work with the school last year to resolve financial and curriculum problems, she said, but the Richard Milburn Academy did not meet its academic goals and it continued to have money woes.

"I am sure that they are very disappointed that they have not been more successful," Fiorentino said.

That said, she continued, the district's main concern is not the charter school but its students.

"Right now, our focus is going to be on ensuring that the students have a smooth transition" to another school for the 2007-08 academic year, she said. "As long as we are meeting the students' needs academically, that is the main point."

School Board member Kathryn Starkey shared that perspective. "If Richard Milburn Academy is not able to stay open or do a good job, I hope we are able to find a way to serve those kids," Starkey said. "I don't want to see the kids not getting all the opportunities we can give them."

There will be an open house for parents at 6 tonight at the school. Parents and students will be able to get more details about the situation there.

When it closes, Pasco County will be left with five charter schools, including at least one other on the bubble. The district has raised red flags about the finances of the Language Academy, and expects to decide by April whether to allow it to stay open next fall.

Richard Milburn Academy, based in Massachusetts, had troubles with its Hillsborough County charter school, too. Hillsborough pulled the school's charter contract last year, one year after renewing it, citing poor academic performance.

The charter company appealed the decision to the State Board of Education, but the state upheld the district's decision.

Richard Milburn also operates schools in Bradenton, Fort Myers and South Daytona, and in several Texas cities.

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