NEW PORT RICHEY — Since they began operating here, Pasco's charter school leaders have made no secret of their dismay with the school district's efforts to oversee the way they do business.
Mostly, they've complained.
Now, the Athenian Academy of Pasco wants to break free.
It has become the state's first active charter school to ask the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission to take over its charter. If approved, the school would remain in Pasco County, but its overseer would reside in Tallahassee instead of Land O'Lakes.
"The reason is, as far as I'm concerned, you have more freedom with the state instead of being harassed by the local school board," said George Poumakis, president of the Athenian Academy board of directors. "That's throughout the United States. The local (school) boards have too much to say, too many demands — unreasonable demands. It's very simple."
Since opening in 2006, the Athenian Academy has battled with the Pasco school district over enrollment, finances and curriculum. In late 2007, for instance, the district administration accused the charter school of violating its contract by admitting more students than its contract allowed.
When the Athenian Academy asked during the summer to extend its contract by five years, it won only a one-year extension. Evaluators from the district's charter school office said they didn't have enough substantial data to determine whether the school deserved a longer agreement.
Alicia Rodriguez Bower, executive vice president of the charter's management firm, said relations with the Pasco School Board have improved over time. Still, she said, the board has offered no guarantees that it would allow the Athenian Academy to remain open after its contract expires in June.
"We feel we have an excellent school," Rodriguez Bower said. "We want to keep our options open because we want to keep our school open."
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said she supports the role that charter schools have come to play in public education. They offer parents and students academic choices that the traditional schools cannot always provide.
Funded by tax dollars
The Athenian Academy focuses on math instruction with immersion in the Greek and Spanish languages. Like other charter schools, it is a public school that receives taxpayer dollars.
But the district still has a responsibility to oversee the use of taxpayer dollars and to hold the charters academically accountable, Fiorentino said. Its experiences with the now-failed Deerwood Academy and Language Academy demonstrate that the oversight is needed, she added.
"I'm very proud of the efforts that the (Athenian Academy) has made. They're a B school. They're doing very well," Fiorentino said. "We will continue to do our effort, though."
The district's oversight effort includes a challenge of the constitutionality of the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission, to which the Athenian Academy has applied for sponsorship.
The Legislature created the commission, which began operations three years ago, as an alternative authority to approve charter schools' plans, after some operators complained local school districts were hostile to them. Pasco and more than a dozen other districts contend that the Florida Constitution provides local districts, and not a state agency, with the sole authority to operate public schools within their boundaries.
The Florida Schools of Excellence Commission has turned away applicants who want to open charter schools in counties that already have received exclusive control over charters from the State Board of Education. Pasco did not get that control and it did not appeal the decision, saying the state board has no power to grant it.
Until the courts decide that issue, the commission remains in play.
And interim executive director Ileana Gomez said the commission would treat the Athenian Academy like any other applicant. The only difference, she added, is that the commission also will have the chance to look at the school's actual past performance and to assess the school district's analysis of the Athenian Academy.
"We want to make sure the charters that we sponsor are of the best quality," Gomez said.
The Florida Schools of Excellence Commission has yet to open a charter school. It plans to announce its decision on all of its charter applicants, including the Athenian Academy, in December.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.