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Pasco school district, charter school attorneys face off in court over enrollment rules



Lawyers for the Pasco school district and the Athenian Academy charter school faced off Thursday before Pasco Circuit Judge Stanley Mills, seeking resolution to their months-old dispute over whether the school may expand enrollment for the coming academic year.

"I need a decision today," charter school board president Jim Mathieu said during testimony, suggesting that any further delay in settling the school's size could have negative financial implications.

But none was immediately forthcoming, as Mills said he needed some time to plow into the sections of charter school law that, to him, were "virgin territory." He also warned the school's lawyer that he was unlikely to issue any sort of injunction to prevent the school district from barring the enrollment growth.

"Me issuing a ruling saying, Here's how I see this and how the statute should be interpreted, that I can possibly do," Mills said. "I just don't foresee myself enjoining anyone from doing anything right now."

The primary point of disagreement centered on the two sides' interpretation of state charter school law.

Shawn Arnold, representing Athenian Academy, argued that nowhere in law does a school district have the right to impose different enrollment expansion rules than the terms set forth in a contract between the district and the school. The charter school's contract sets forth capacities for each year of operation, and Arnold said the school simply aims to follow those numbers.

School district lawyer Dennis Alfonso countered that the statute pertaining to high-performing charters, which Athenian is labeled, makes clear that a high-performing charter may not expand its enrollment in the year after it earns a school grade of C or lower. That doesn't mean capacities, he said, but rather the number of students in seats. Athenian earned a C last year, and is projected to receive a D this year.

The district did not impose its interpretation last year, as the state grades came out just a couple of weeks before classes were to begin. But officials told Athenian the district would hold firm to statute this year if Athenian gets lower than a B again. Grades have not been released yet. Athenian has moved ahead with plans to grow, although administrator Dan Rishavy told Mills "those activities have ceased ... until our revenue stream is certain."

Mills said he understood the unfolding scenario, and noted that the outcome could affect other charter schools facing a similar situation. He said he would try to act fast, but added he had a full plate of cases. Representatives for both sides said they had no choice but to wait before taking any further steps.

[Last modified: Thursday, June 13, 2013 2:23pm]


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