Hillsborough School Board explains charter school votes in letter to state

Charter supporters urged the board to change its position. Others urged the board to stand its ground.

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | June 29, 2021

TAMPA — Meeting a deadline set by the Florida Department of Education, the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday defended its plans to not renew the contracts of four charter schools.

The letter it sent to the department — which had criticized the board’s June 15 actions as illegal — contended commissioner Richard Corcoran misstated the rule governing charter school nonrenewals. The rule does not require those cancellations occur 90 days before the term ends, the district claimed.

Rather, that wording comes in a sample contract form attached to the rule that was added after the contracts for the four Hillsborough charter schools in question were approved. Therefore, it does not apply, board chairwoman Lynn Gray wrote in the letter.

The district’s contracts with those schools call for a 90-day notification of possible cancellation, she wrote, and that is what the board provided to the charters.

“The School Board is in complete compliance with the charter contract as well as state law,” Gray wrote. “Should any of the four charter schools wish to appeal the decision of the Hillsborough County School Board, they will be well within their rights to request a hearing before an administrative law judge.”

The board attached the letters it sent Tuesday to each of the four charter schools, detailing its rationale for rejecting their renewals. For two, the concerns centered on financial issues. For the other two, the criticisms focused on the schools’ problems in implementing special education and related requirements.

The letters went out just before the board convened its 4 p.m. session.

Earlier in the day, dozens of charter school supporters rallied outside the board’s special meeting to signal their disapproval of the board’s recent moves to close four charters and reject two new ones.

“I’m tired of the school district blaming the charter schools for all their problems,” said parent Christopher Putnam, a former district teacher who now teaches at Kids Community College South and sends his daughter to Kids Community College High.

“We’re not causing their problems,” Putnam said, referring to the district’s ongoing money woes. “Parents are tired of their children being used for political purposes.”

Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran chastised the board on June 23, saying its actions violated state rule and law. He demanded a response from the district by the end of business Tuesday.

The board held its early meeting to get an update from its lawyers.

Attorney Jim Porter told board members that the legal team was working on the letter to explain the rationale behind each denial. He cautioned the board not to say too much, because the charters that were rejected have a legal appeals process to use, and any comments on the record could be used in those cases.

“You just need to be very careful, because we do anticipate litigation,” Porter said.

Board member Melissa Snively wanted to talk, though. She opposed the denials, and said they were creating difficulties for families, many of whom were rallying outside.

“It’s been a very stressful year for many families. And this is something on top of that,” she said, noting that closing charter schools could cause students to scramble for new places to learn.

Snively made a motion to rescind the board’s actions. No one supported that effort.

She then criticized the board for holding a special meeting and not accepting public comment. Porter said no public input was required, as the board had no vote on this issue pending.

Snively insisted that, since the board was having a meeting and not a workshop on the topic, the public should be allowed to speak. She made a motion to open the session to community input.

Other board members indicated they were sensitive to any suggestion they were not willing to listen.

“We all appreciate the need for voices to be heard. It does feel like we are stifling them, and that is not a very comfortable position,” chairperson Lynn Gray said.

Two board members — Nadia Combs and Jessica Vaughn — raised concerns that some residents were told they could not speak at the meeting. They suggested it would not be fair to allow those who showed up to do so.

The board ultimately decided to accept input both at its morning meeting and again at 4 p.m.

Twenty people delivered a consistent message to the board during the first round: School choice matters to them, and the board shouldn’t take it away.

“It is very disheartening to watch a School Board meeting where members suggest that I as a parent don’t know what is best for my children,” said parent Ternica Blackmon. “With all due respect, my children’s education is not your choice. It’s mine.”

They spoke of schools that create a family atmosphere that benefits the children and the communities served.

Parent Margaret Hofacker told of her son, Trent, who she said could not function well at a large traditional high school but blossomed at Kids Community College High.

“He not only survived his freshman year, he thrived,” Hofacker said. “This is a kid who is terrified of everybody and being in public. And he did so well.”

Natalie King, speaking on behalf of the leaders of several independent charter schools, urged the board to rethink its actions.

“We must remember that the student comes first, not the adults, not the institution, and this should not be political. Florida parents have a right to choose the best environment in which to educate their individual children,” she said, reading from a letter the group sent to the board.

Although the board listened, Kids Community College founder Tim Kilpatrick held out little hope for change, “primarily because what is happening here is political.”

“I think the stories you heard here today will fall on deaf ears,” he said, adding that the taxpayers will pay the price along with the children’s education.

As the afternoon session began, another side emerged. Residents stepped forward to urge the board to stand its ground against charter schools that do not provide required special education and related services.

“You truly did what is best,” parent and teacher Jennifer Hart told the board.

Snively said she did not anticipate reviving her motions to reconsider the June 15 actions, as she did not have support the first time around.

“I can count to one,” she said.

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