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    Charter applicants face legal challenges

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 2000


    LARGO -- A lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has objected to four of the five groups that want to open charter schools in Pinellas County in August 2001.

    The School Board, which will consider the applications Dec. 12, is required to listen to Legal Defense Fund lawyer Enrique Escarraz because of a recent settlement in the district's desegregation case. In letters to School Board attorney John Bowen, Escarraz objected because none of the charters promises to abide by the district's court order and settlement, which requires race ratios in every school.

    If board members ignore Escarraz's objections and approve the applications anyway, the settlement requires a mediator to resolve the dispute. Board members are likely to listen carefully to Escarraz's opinion -- and that doesn't bode well for four of the proposed charters.

    Escarraz has not commented on the Love of Learning school for emotionally mature students in grades 4 through 8.

    Some of Escarraz's concerns could be simple to correct if charter founders were able to amend their applications after they are turned in.

    Last year, several applicants made changes up until days before the board was scheduled to vote. This year, board members decided that charter founders would not have that luxury and should have sought advice from the district before the applications were due in early October.

    "Some of them tried to submit applications without getting input from staff," Bowen said. "It would have been very simple to include these things that are required by the court order."

    Charter schools are run by private groups but receive public funds, so they are considered public schools. Opening a charter requires a two-step approval process. First, a group files an application with the School Board, which says yes or no.

    If the board approves an application, it moves to step two: actual negotiation of a "charter" or contract with the district. If an application is turned down, the group can reapply the next year or appeal to the state Cabinet.

    Review of the initial application is rigorous.

    District officials carefully study budgets, curriculum and other issues before making a recommendation to the School Board. The Legal Defense Fund and the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee, a community watchdog group created by the settlement, review whether the application complies with the court order.

    DMAC members have not yet reviewed the applications.

    These are the charter applicants and Escarraz's objections:

    The city of Oldsmar wants to run a 360-student middle school at the former Community School of Oldsmar, 300 St. Petersburg Drive W. The not-for-profit school would feature a student-teacher ratio of 20-to-1, with an emphasis on enrolling sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who live within the city limits.

    That would not be allowed, Escarraz and Bowen said. Escarraz also objected because the application only promises "all efforts" to abide by the settlement.

    "Actual compliance with the order is necessary, not just an effort," Escarraz wrote.

    City manager Bruce Haddock did not return a phone message left with his office.

    The Marcus Garvey Academy, which applied last year and was turned down, has changed its proposal to a program for 40 struggling fourth- and fifth-graders at the headquarters for the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement in St. Petersburg.

    The academy would have a dropout prevention focus, founders say, so it qualifies for an exemption from the ratios. Without a waiver, the academy's application would have to be denied because it intends to enroll mostly black students, which violates the cap on African-American enrollment at each school.

    Escarraz doesn't think the Academy qualifies for an exemption, which is only for certain types of dropout-prevention programs, such as those for pregnant teens or those in the juvenile justice system. Bowen, the School Board attorney, agrees.

    "There are no details as to the aspect of the program that would be a dropout prevention program," Escarraz wrote. "Simply identifying oneself as a drop-out prevention program does not make the program a drop-out prevention program."

    Guy Burns, a lawyer for the group, thinks the settlement specifically allows the School Board to grant a waiver for dropout-prevention programs that the district needs but does not offer. The Academy would have an Afrocentric focus, with a focus on traditional academics and a longer school day.

    Bowen said the part of the settlement Burns cites only allows the board to waive the limits on a charter's size, but not compliance with the ratios.

    "We think we are entitled to that waiver," Burns said. "We believe it is a dropout-prevention program because it targets failing African-American students at a very early time and has, we think, the most chance of success in reversing the failure rate among that group of students."

    The Coconut Grove-based Chancellor Charter Schools wants two 600-pupil elementary schools at unnamed sites. The schools would offer basic academic courses, with character education and six computers in each classroom.

    Escarraz objected because the charter does not promise to follow the court order or make diversity a goal in student population and staff. The school might require parents to sign a contract saying they will be involved; that would violate the settlement, Escarraz says, because the district can't add any countywide fundamental schools before 2007.

    The Richard Milburn Academy in Salem, Mass., is seeking a charter for two schools, location not specified, for at-risk high school students, ages 13 to 20. Escarraz objected because the application does not specifically promise the charters will abide by the court order.

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