Florida turns up heat against school district over struggling middle school

Action News Jax | By Ryan Dailey | May 16, 2023

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — State Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. on Tuesday gave Escambia County officials 48 hours to execute a contract with a charter-school company to operate a struggling middle school, threatening to withhold pay from the district superintendent and school board members.

The State Board of Education held a special meeting that focused on what’s known as a “turnaround plan” for Warrington Middle School. The Escambia district has been in negotiations with the company Charter Schools USA.

“Over the last 10 years, Warrington Middle School has not once earned a school grade above a ‘D,’” Diaz said during the meeting, also pointing to lagging student performance on statewide assessments.

In a May 5 memo, Diaz wrote that the district in 2019 selected an option for a charter-school operator to assume control of the school, which had tried and “failed for years” under two other turnaround options aimed at improving the school’s grade to a “C” or better. The state board approved a charter-school turnaround plan in 2022.

The Legislature in 2017 passed a measure that allows charter operators to take over operations when a school’s performance has consistently floundered. Diaz in the memo wrote that he found “probable cause” that the Escambia district is violating state law and State Board of Education rules by “failing to timely execute a contract” with a charter-school company.

The district was given a May 1 deadline to execute such a contract. The district on May 1 submitted separate lease and charter agreements with Renaissance Charter School, Inc., which is affiliated with Charter Schools USA. The agreements were signed by Escambia Superintendent of Schools Tim Smith and Escambia School Board Chairman Paul Fetsko, but not by a representative of Renaissance Charter School.

State Board of Education member Esther Byrd on Tuesday pressed Smith about whether he and the district “understand fully that you’re out of compliance with the law.”

But Smith defended what he described as the district’s actions to secure a charter-school agreement.

“The negotiations have been extensive, and there are some challenging points to it all. I think with an agreement like this, we certainly showed effort and urgency with our May 1 action, and this board moved forward with that to push towards finality,” Smith said.

The Escambia School Board was scheduled to meet Tuesday night. Smith told the state board that he intended to recommend approval of a contract with Charter Schools USA during the meeting.

The state board approved a recommendation by Diaz that, if the contract is not approved in two days, the commissioner would report “the district’s failure” to the Legislature and withhold funding to the district in an amount equal to the salaries of the school board members and superintendent.

Members of the state board rebuked Smith and district officials Tuesday, leading to a tense exchange.

“I find your negotiations to be either incompetent or completely disingenuous. And I’m just going to call it out as I see it,” state board member Ryan Petty said.

“It really disturbs me that you’re implying we are incompetent and we don’t care,” Smith replied, in part. “There is nothing further from the truth. We significantly care. And it is just offensive that our public is listening to this here, and you’re telling us that we do not care about the children at Warrington Middle School. Sir, that is just wrong.”

Diaz, however, contended that it is “not incumbent upon Charter Schools USA or any charter to comply with state board rule and law, it is the district’s responsibility to comply.”

Meanwhile, Diaz has pursued sanctions against at least one other county school leader in recent weeks.

Leon County Superintendent of Schools Rocky Hanna faces the possibility of state officials revoking Hanna’s educator certificate because of issues such as the school district in the past requiring masks to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Hanna last month pushed back against Diaz finding probable cause to pursue such sanctions. Hanna called the commissioner’s actions an attempt “to silence me and anyone else who speaks up for teachers” in a way “that does not fit the political narrative of those in power.”

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