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Charter school fights to grow

Kindergarteners Nyzaiah Wilson, left, Katherine Shabunina, center, and Erin Scordamaglia beat it out during a drum circle at Athenian Academy in New Port Richey. The charter school has accepted 100 more students for next fall, even though the Pasco School District says it can’t expand under state law.

MICHELE MILLER | Times (2009)

Kindergarteners Nyzaiah Wilson, left, Katherine Shabunina, center, and Erin Scordamaglia beat it out during a drum circle at Athenian Academy in New Port Richey. The charter school has accepted 100 more students for next fall, even though the Pasco School District says it can’t expand under state law.

NEW PORT RICHEY — The Athenian Academy charter school has decided to up the ante in its enrollment fight with the Pasco school district.

The school this week held a second admission lottery and accepted about 100 more students for next fall, despite being told by the district that the school could not expand under state law.

"We've got these students coming on," said Jim Mathieu, president of the charter school's governing board. "If (the district) wants to hurt them, it's up to them."

Mathieu contended that Athenian Academy has a contract with the district that clearly states the school may have an enrollment up to 498 students in 2013-14. He challenged the district's decision to invoke the statute that would prevent a high-performing charter school from growing its enrollment if it received a C grade.

Athenian did get a high-performance rating from the state, and also a C grade in 2011-12. Its current year grade is not yet calculated.

"We have a 15-year contract that we negotiated with them," Mathieu said, arguing the high-performing charter law is irrelevant to his position. "If they are able to say that a school district doesn't have to live up to the contract ... that will destroy charter schools across the state. We're not going to let that happen."

The school's governing board has hired a high-profile charter school lawyer from Jacksonville to fight its case.

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso disagreed with the Athenian Academy's perspective. He suggested that the contract refers to enrollment capacity, and not the actual number of students in the school.

The law, Alfonso continued, uses unambiguous language to assert that a high performing charter "may not increase enrollment or expand grade levels following any school year in which it receives a school grade of C or below."

"It's got to mean you're held to your actual enrollment numbers," Alfonso said. "Otherwise it means nothing."

The disagreement, he added, is about what lawmakers meant when they wrote the different sections of charter school law. If charters do not have the high-performing designation, their enrollment numbers by law are "determined annually by the governing board, in conjunction with the sponsor," which generally is the district.

Lawmakers have acknowledged during their current session that some confusion might exist. That's why they have proposed changes to the law that would clarify the rights and responsibilities of schools designated as high-performing.

They have stressed that the intent was to allow good charter schools to grow, but noted that the law as written doesn't specify that charters that drop in performance will lose the high-performing status and the perks that go with it. Those perks include being able to grow up to 15 percent without specific permission from their sponsors, which usually are districts.

Charter schools around the state will keep a close eye on the outcome of this challenge, said Lynn Norman-Teck, spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. It's not an issue that has cropped up before, she noted.

"Other districts will look at whether they win or lose," Norman-Teck said. "It's very important."

Mathieu said the stakes are high for Athenian Academy because it has made financial plans based on the enrollment figures cited in the school's contract with the district. It plans to add classrooms in coming years as it moves toward having close to 600 students.

He suggested that the district's move could cost the school as much as $600,000 a year, and questioned the propriety of the district's action.

Alfonso stressed that the district is not trying to squeeze the Athenian Academy, but rather simply follow the law as it stands. He said the district gave the school ample notice of its stance,.

"How they proceed is up to them," Alfonso said, adding that the entire matter could just go away if Athenian Academy earns a B or better grade this year.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Charter school fights to grow 04/05/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 7:08pm]

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