TAMPA — Three weeks before the school year starts, the University of South Florida has given up trying to run a charter elementary school for at-risk children.
The Hillsborough School Board voted Tuesday to take over the 225-student school, but lamented the lack of time and options. The USF/Patel Charter School just received an F grade and is struggling financially.
"One more time, we're bailing out a charter school who didn't appreciate how hard it would be to run a school system," board member Carol Kurdell said.
This takeover puts the district in new territory. Charter schools are public schools, but are run independently. In the decade that Florida has experimented with the concept, Hillsborough has seen a number fail. But never has the district staged an eleventh-hour rescue of this scale.
USF officials blamed financing for the troubles. They said the university was prevented from spending state funding to assist the charter school.
"It is disappointing, but the reasons for the failure have to do with the way charter schools are funded," said USF spokesman Michael Hoad. "The answer really is to use USF's relationship with the school district to do what's best for the students."
Operated in partnership with the USF College of Education, the Patel charter school mostly served impoverished students. It appeared to have a lot of resources — a building on USF's campus, academic relationships and a pediatric health care center located in the school.
Educators had freedom to do things differently. The Legislature originally envisioned charter schools as laboratories for innovation, serving as models for traditional public schools.
In this case, the roles seemed to reverse in the end. Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia downplayed the university's failure, stressing that USF would continue to be a key partner.
"There are so many factors that play into establishing a successful elementary school," Elia said. "We're all dedicated to getting the best program in place."
Many questions remained unanswered Tuesday, a concern for School Board members. One complained of seeing the superintendent's recommendation to take over the school less than an hour before the meeting.
District officials pushed for rapid action. Letting the Patel school students disperse would be a logistical nightmare, they said. The families that chose to enroll in the charter school could have attended at least 50 different schools around the county. If they suddenly returned to those schools, those may need to hire new teachers and make transportation arrangements.
Neighboring elementary schools are already overcrowded.
Elia said a team of district educators was at the Patel school Tuesday afternoon to begin planning. She wants to assure parents they can stay there, and get new leadership in place.
The district expects to operate out of the existing building.
The district faces considerable challenges at the school. The fourth- and fifth-grade test scores earned the school an F grade.
Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 226-3431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.