Monday, October 15, 2018

Despite reservations, Pasco School Board approves new Academica charter school

A Miami firm seeking to open a charter school in Wesley Chapel encountered some resistance Tuesday from the Pasco County School Board, but ultimately prevailed in its request for a 5-year contract.

Pinecrest Academy is associated with Academica, one of Florida's largest charter school companies. It intends to launch a K-8 school with as many as 900 students in 2019, at a location that hasn't been disclosed.

Its application didn't show any local connections to the community, though. And that raised the hackles of board member Allen Altman, who wanted to know if and when the group's governing board would include Pasco County representation.

Fernando Barroso, listed as a Pinecrest parent liaison, didn't commit. He said he would bring the idea to the company, and perhaps it would add a local person if a spot opens on its board.

The board also will hold at least one meeting a year in Wesley Chapel, as required by law, he said. And it will have plenty of representation in the community, getting to know people and promoting its school.

"Pinecrest will be known in Wesley Chapel. I don't want you to think it's just an out of town organization coming into Pasco," Barroso told the board.

"Why would we think otherwise at this point?" Altman retorted.

Other board members agreed on the importance of having local representation on the charter school leadership. It gives parents an immediate contact for questions, without having to call an out-of-town entity, they said.

"We feel like that's the recipe for the best outcome for our students," vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley said.

They got only assurances that the company's representatives had met with district officials before making a proposal.

Superintendent Kurt Browning, meanwhile, had another concern.

"What does Pinecrest Academy provide to our students that we do not?" he asked Barroso. "That's a question that parents are going to want to know."

Barroso said he was "not sure I can tell you one thing specifically," then listed a handful of things the school would provide, such as STEM programs and advanced technology.

Browning said many Pasco schools already offer such programs. He suggested that charter schools should be somehow different and supplemental to district schools.

Left unsaid, but mentioned in the past, was that the district's schools in the Wesley Chapel area have consistently been growing and crowded. The charters offer seats the district does not have.

Despite the clear reservations, Browning recommended approval of the five-year contract, and the board unanimously agreed. Its action stood in stark contrast to the Sarasota County School Board, which rejected a Pinecrest application weeks earlier amid community complaints.

The reason, Browning said, was a simple one.

"At the end of the day, there's going to be charter schools," he explained, noting the company could simply appeal a rejection to the state, which most likely would instruct the board to okay the deal.

"They met all the [state] check marks," chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said.

That won't stop Browning, who said he will continue to ask questions so  the public understands whether the charters have anything to offer that's not in the district schools.

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