GazetteXtra Print Article Logo URL:

In Hillsborough, charter schools are the elephant in the boardroom

By Marlene Sokol
Hillsborough County School Board member Tamara Shamburger

More fallout from Tuesday's Hillsborough County School Board meeting involves charter schools.

The board, as promised, heard a presentation from charter schools director Jenna Hodgens about the many charter applications that are withdrawn before they ever get to the board for a vote. This was intended to counter criticism Superintendent Jeff Eakins and the board have taken in recent years over the fact that the board virtually never votes down a charter application.

They don't have to, the argument goes: The applicants are turned back before their projects get that far. And they often resubmit those applications after working with Hodgens to fix their shortcomings.

Here is a year-by-year accounting of the applications and withdrawals. Dating back to 2000, it shows that as many as 15 can be withdrawn in a year.

To put a finer point on the argument, board attorney Jim Porter said the district saves money on legal fees because other school boards turn down charter proposals, only to have them appeal to the state.

Now, opponents to the whole charter school movement would come back with two counter arguments:  1. Hodgens and her staff are expending public resources to help charter applicants perfect their applications; and  2. As for legal fees, the district could save a lot of money by using inhouse counsel, as other large districts do.

Member Tamara Shamburger, at the very end of the meeting, said it is important for everyone involved to do some "self reflection" and consider how the district's public image might be pushing some families to charter schools.

She has since clarified that statement more than once. She told The Times she was referring to everyone, including the board and district employees. Teachers who heard her statement asked if she was blaming the problem on  those teachers who came forward to complain about the current pay dispute.

On Thursday, Shamburger sent this clarification in a text:

"In continuing my request for self reflection… By law the Board must approved qualified charters.

"BUT we aren't mandated to package up and send our students to these schools. Families are voluntarily leaving our public schools. It's this very fact that we all must reflect on and determine how our actions, individually, are making families leave. We need to strengthen every neighborhood school so that it's the first and best choice for our families."