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Hernando charter school for at-risk takes shape

BROOKSVILLE — There were a few pointed questions Tuesday, but also encouraging signs for the backers of what could become Hernando County's second charter school.

The School Board agreed to accept a revised application by Oct. 1 from Fort Lauderdale-based Mavericks in Education to open a 400-student public charter school that would focus on high school dropouts and at-risk students.

A district review committee last month found several potentially fatal problems in the company's initial application, including insufficient staffing and vague plans for reading and special-needs instruction. The district also questioned the school's budget controls and funding projections.

But Diane Rowden, a county commissioner and president of the applicant's local board of directors, said the company would go "above and beyond" those issues to make sure its revised application met with board approval.

"We'll give you a budget you're comfortable with," added Mavericks CEO Mark Thimmig.

Financial matters are of particular interest to the district, since the for-profit management company will take in 97 percent of each student's more than $6,000 in state and local funds after paying an up-front service fee of 5 percent to the district.

That leaves just 3 percent under the control of the local governing board for the nonprofit school, said David Schoelles, a member of the review committee.

"We did not see where the governing board would have adequate control over the expenditures of the school," he said.

But Thimmig said those funds covered "every single aspect" of running the school, and added up to less than what the district would spend to teach the same students.

Several board members praised the performance of the county's first charter, Gulf Coast Academy, but said they were concerned about the potential for the new school to lure away too many enrolled students and their funding.

Member Dianne Bonfield wondered aloud whether the school's enrollment could be restricted to students who have left school, but board attorney J. Paul Carland said state law might not permit it. Charter schools are public entities that operate under independent rules, but generally must accept all applicants.

Thimmig said he hoped the school and district would enjoy a "collaborative, cooperative and not competitive" relationship.

"If kids are succeeding, we don't think they should go anywhere else," he added. "(But) we feel there ought to be a door open to those students without first dropping out."

And board member Jim Malcolm echoed superintendent Wayne Alexander in suggesting that the school might one day replace the district's STAR Academy, which teaches students who might otherwise drop out or be expelled.

"I wouldn't want to preclude a partnership of doing what we do at STAR," Malcolm said, describing that program's annual $2-million cost as a "heavy budget expense for us."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando charter school for at-risk takes shape 09/02/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 8:28pm]
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