Sunday, February 25, 2018
Education

Final details could snag new Pasco charter school

Plans for Pepin Academies to open a new charter school in Pasco County next fall are not yet a done deal.

Confusion reigned in the days after the Pasco School Board appeared to have approved Pepin's 15-year contract, as district officials tried to reconstruct exactly what board members left undone.

Before voting on the contract, individual members said they sought an amendment indicating that if Pepin — a school that serves students with disabilities — does not make progress toward financing on a new school building within three years, the term would be shortened. Superintendent Kurt Browning said Pepin officials told him they wanted a 15-year deal so they could secure construction loans.

Barbara Wilhite, the lawyer representing Pepin, encouraged the board not to be so strict. The charter school might enter a long-term lease for a building developed to its own specifications, she explained.

That's where the fuzziness arose.

Board member Allen Altman sounded amenable to allowing such an arrangement. Chairwoman Alison Crumbley, by contrast, said she was okay with the longer contract "as long as there is no leasing involved."

Others chimed in. They said a long-term contract required a long-term commitment from Pepin.

But they never cemented their intent as they voted for the contract, as amended.

"It really wasn't that clear when we finished," Crumbley admitted.

That left board attorney Dennis Alfonso to figure out what the "something more" that the board requested might be. He intends to have language ready for a Feb. 18 meeting, and doesn't want to spring it on anyone.

But the resulting wording could, in theory, squash the longer contract, which in turn could affect Pepin's plans. Pepin representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

"The contract is still not complete," Alfonso said. "It's coming back to the board. The 15 years is a qualified 15 years."

He suggested that the district needs to craft contract terms that make clear why Pepin is getting treatment different from other county charter schools, none of which have deals longer than five years. If Pepin needs the longer agreement for construction financing, he said, that might be a reasonable stance.

Alfonso said he might recommend that the 15 years be tied to Pepin's progress in holding title to school property within three years.

If the group, which already operates in Hillsborough County without a 15-year contract, simply seeks to enter into a lease agreement, though, that could pose problems.

"Why would there be the need for 15 years if it's build to lease?" board member Joanne Hurley said during the debate. "You could just go out and lease a building."

Hurley voted against the 15-year contract.

Classical Preparatory School, another new charter, plans to open in the same Quail Ridge subdivision as Pepin and is leasing property under its own five-year contract.

Crumbley and vice chairman Steve Luikart both said in the days after the vote that they expected Pepin to own its property in exchange for the lengthy deal.

"They have to show they are building something," Luikart said. "Not just the lease of a storefront."

Alfonso expected to meet with Wilhite in the coming week to attempt to write an amendment that satisfies the district and the charter school.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]

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