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    Oldsmar restates its case to get new charter school

    City officials write to and meet again with School Board members to answer criticisms.

    By ED QUIOCO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000


    OLDSMAR -- In person and in writing, city officials have made an 11th-hour attempt to persuade Pinellas County School Board members to approve the city's application for a charter school.

    On Monday, the day before the School Board was scheduled to discuss applications from Oldsmar and three other organizations, City Council member Ed Manny and other city officials met with three School Board members and Superintendent Howard Hinesley. Last week, they had met with two other School Board members.

    "We just wanted them to understand what our intent was, and I think we were able to get that across pretty well," said Manny, who is spearheading the city's proposal.

    The city also has sent a letter to School Board Chairman Thomas Todd, defending its charter school proposal from the criticisms of school district staff.

    When the School Board meets at 1 p.m. today at the school administration building, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo, the application for the Oldsmar Charter Middle School will face an uphill struggle.

    Last week, district staff members sent a report to the School Board saying that Oldsmar's proposal contains several violations of state law.

    The memo also agreed with the analysis of an NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney who said the city's application would violate a recent settlement and court order for the county's long-standing school desegregation lawsuit.

    "We disagree with your staff that our proposal does not comply with state law," according to Oldsmar's four-page letter, signed by City Manager Bruce Haddock. "We disagree that our charter application will have a negative impact on the best interest of the community and the students, or the "good faith' . . . of the School Board. We believe that our disagreements are minor, and can be easily addressed during the charter development phase."

    That's not how the district's staff views the deficiencies.

    "In (Oldsmar's) letter, it said they were minor issues," district director of governmental services Steve Swartzel said Monday. "The issues . . . that we addressed are not minor issues. They're major issues."

    According to the city's application, the charter middle school would give priority to students who live in the city. That requirement "is in conflict with Florida law," the district report says.

    The city's letter states that "our intent has never been to limit enrollment" and that it goes without saying that Oldsmar would abide by a federal court order.

    "We are a municipality and we are thoroughly cognizant of laws and practices encouraging diversity and prohibiting discrimination," the city's letter states. "Anti-discrimination is written into our own personnel policies and procedures, and we educate our employees in the benefits of employment diversity and inclusion."

    The district's report also states that the proposed school's strict dismissal policy violates state laws. According to the application, students of the proposed middle school could be dismissed if, for example, their parents fail to attend parent meetings and conferences or if students do not maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

    The city defended that policy by saying it also would set up a detailed probationary period and numerous interventions before disciplinary action.

    "Such policy hardly suggests a draconian dismissal procedure; to the contrary, we feel that such policies and procedures will encourage student success," the city's letter says.

    Although the city is proposing to change its application to deal with the district's concerns, it is too late for that, Swartzel said Monday. Any changes would mean that the process would begin anew and the application would have to be sent to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for another review.

    "Any amendments to the application is essentially a new application for the purposes of having to go back to the Legal Defense Fund," Swartzel said.

    If the School Board approves the city's application despite the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's objection, the recent settlement requires that the matter be resolved by an alternative dispute resolution, a negotiation process that could end in a formal hearing.

    Swartzel said the city's difficulties could have been avoided had city officials met with district staff members before submitting the application.

    "Had we had the opportunity to meet with their staff on the details of their application, some problems would have been cleared and issues avoided," he said.

    And if that weren't enough criticism, Oldsmar City Council member Ed Richards said Monday night that he will speak against the city's application when the School Board meets today.

    "I'm going to get up and tell the School Board that the city is not mature enough to handle a charter school, period," Richards said. "Everything was a fraud as far as I'm concerned with this charter school business."

    - Staff writer Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or quioco@sptimes.com.

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