School districts gird for charter fight

They want local control of charter schools, despite rulings by the state Board of Education.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published December 7, 2007

School district officials around Florida believe local school boards - and only local school boards - should have the right to decide what charter schools operate in their counties.

The state Board of Education had a different thought, though. It recently denied 38 district requests for that exclusive control.

Now one by one, districts are stepping up to fight the state board's decision.

Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas are among districts that have voted to appeal the state board's ruling. And a group of them is also working with lawyers to determine whether - or more likely when - to sue the state over the constitutionality of the law that creates the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission as an alternative to local control of charters.

"It goes to the very heart of what an elected local body has the power to do," said Ron Meyer, the Tallahassee lawyer who's running the case for the Florida School Boards Association. "This is not really as much about charter schools as what does it mean when the state Constitution says an elected school board shall run the local schools."

Districts had until Monday to file notices of their intent to appeal the state board's denial. Twenty did, according to the state Education Department. Lawyers for many of the districts plan to meet today in Tampa to talk about strategy as they move ahead.

The focus of the districts' concerns, Meyer and others explain, centers on Article IX, Section 4 of the Florida Constitution. They said it makes clear that local school districts "operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district."

They contend that conflicts with the 2006 law that creates the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission and gives it permission to "authorize and act as a sponsor" of charter schools, which are public schools.

"We have a district education system," said Connie Milito, a lobbyist for the Hillsborough school district, which is joining the challenge. "We believe the districts are responsible."

And if the state can erode districts' autonomy in this way, Meyer said, there's no telling where it will stop. Maybe lawmakers will want to set teacher pay rates, he said, or decide where students must attend school.

"Charter schools were created to be an experiment, to see what works if you strip away some of the requirements and the boundaries. It has instead become a cottage industry," Meyer said. "And the people involved nationally have determined they run into interference at the school district level, so it would be more convenient to have one-stop shopping in Tallahassee."

And that, Meyer said, is what the districts are fighting against.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.