NEW PORT RICHEY — The Athenian Academy charter school has a 108-student problem as it prepares for its open enrollment lottery this evening.
The school wants to grow its student body to 498. The Pasco County School District says Athenian cannot expand its enrollment beyond its current level of 390.
The issue boils down to an interpretation of state law.
"They are a high performing charter school under statute," district charter school supervisor Nancy Scowcroft said. "But statute also says if they drop to a C or below, they cannot increase their enrollment for the following year."
Athenian Academy's state grade dropped from B to C last year. Lawyers for the district have told the administration that the upshot is clear: Athenian Academy can't grow.
Jim Mathieu, president of the charter school's governing board, challenged the district's point of view. He said the school's enrollment can be what the charter school and district agreed to contractually in June, when the School Board gave Athenian Academy a 15-year deal.
That contract says the K-8 school's enrollment will be up to 405 students in Year 1, and up to 498 students in Year 2.
"We're not seeking any more students than our contract says," Mathieu said. "How they can tell us we can't bring in the number of students we contracted to bring is confusing to us."
The charter school has hired a lawyer to make its case. But that effort could take time. And the lottery is happening now.
"It's jamming us up real bad," Mathieu said.
The school wants to be able to tell interested families whether they have seats for 2013-14 as soon as possible, he said.
School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said the district sent a letter to the Athenian Academy in February outlining its legal stance, and was waiting to see if the charter would file an appeal. But Mathieu said the charter school had made its opposition clear and was waiting for a response from the superintendent's office.
Scowcroft noted in a Sunday email to school choice director Lizette Alexander that the district had Athenian's letter for three weeks, and "We will need to get feedback from the Superintendent's staff on how to proceed." That note was forwarded to superintendent Kurt Browning the same day.
Browning sent a letter Wednesday afternoon reaffirming the district's position, that Athenian Academy's enrollment should be capped at 390.
That may not be the last word, though. "We may have to do two lotteries," Mathieu said — one with the lower number and another after the school completes its challenge of the district's stance.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.