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Charter group wants to take over 2 schools set to close

A charter school group announced Thursday it would be willing to take over two of the seven Pinellas schools slated for closure.

Steve Christopoulos, the principal of Plato Academy in Clearwater, said in a statement the group "is prepared to assume occupancy and operate" Coachman Middle School and Palm Harbor Elementary. The Pinellas School Board voted Tuesday to close both buildings as part of a larger effort to cut spending and address declining enrollment.

Although the Coachman building will close, its programs will move to nearby Kennedy Middle.

Plato opened in 2005 and, after some early struggles, has steadily grown, with an enrollment this year of about 235 in kindergarten through sixth grade.

The district has approved Plato's plans to add a second elementary school and a middle school in north Pinellas County. But the group has yet to find sites for the schools.

Christopoulos said buildings now occupied by Palm Harbor Elementary and Coachman would fit nicely into Plato's plans. "If they stay closed," he said, "it's a waste."

In its initial approach to the district, Plato inquired about Palm Harbor Elementary.

Steve Swartzel, the district's government services director, responded in a Jan. 6 letter that the school was not available. The letter cited a state law governing the use of public school buildings by charter schools. It says any surplus or "otherwise unused" school property "shall be provided for a charter school's use on the same basis as it is made available to other public schools in the district."

Swartzel said Palm Harbor wouldn't be available to Plato because "it will not be available to other public schools in the district."

Christopoulos interprets the statute to say Plato could use the property and said he will approach the School Board.

Plato students take classes in Greek language for 45 minutes every day in addition to the regular curriculum. Christopoulos touted the school's A grade from the state and an emphasis on technology. He said the school has a back-to-basics approach and high parent participation, similar to that of fundamental schools.

Turning closed schools into charters would appear to work against the district's plan to cut costs. The district would give up money in the form of per-student allocations from the state; it also would retain ownership and could not collect rent from the charter.

But Christopoulos argued that Plato is going to take students from the district anyway, whether it uses the closed schools or opens in other locations. "The net result is going to be the same," he said.

Charter group wants to take over 2 schools set to close 01/15/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 15, 2009 10:24pm]
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