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Hernando School Board signs off on charter school

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's lone charter school is now officially under contract to replicate itself.

The Hernando County School Board on Tuesday evening approved a 15-year contract with Gulf Coast Academy Inc. allowing the nonprofit corporation to open a second middle school in Spring Hill.

Gulf Coast Middle School will open in the fall of 2013 with up to 88 sixth- and seventh-graders on a new campus on Spring Hill Drive. The science-centered curriculum will be identical to Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology, a middle school that opened in 2003 on Tillery Road and has reached its maximum enrollment of 120. The new school will have the same enrollment cap.

"Now the real work begins," said Joseph Gatti, director of curriculum and instruction.

Under state law, charter schools are public and use state and local tax dollars, but they have independence from local school boards to craft their own programs and policies. The Gulf Coast schools will share the same board of directors.

Prefacing his comments by noting his lukewarm support for charter schools in general, superintendent Bryan Blavatt praised Gulf Coast's record during a board workshop Tuesday afternoon.

"They have made real steps to work with us and be held to the same standard the district is held to," Blavatt said. "I consider them to be a very, very effective partner."

Gulf Coast's charter application moved on a fast track, thanks to a bill signed into law last year by Gov. Rick Scott to allow "high-performing" charter companies to increase enrollment and open more schools without going through a lengthy approval process. To achieve high-performing status, schools must earn an "A" in the state's accountability system twice in three years and have a clean audit for the last three fiscal years.

The most helpful part of the law allowed Gulf Coast to secure a longer charter, Gatti said.

The corporation's fundraising arm, the Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology Education Foundation, closed in December on 6 acres of vacant land on the former Pasco-Hernando Community College campus in Spring Hill. Construction on a building expected to be slightly larger than the school's 7,200-square-foot facility on Tillery Road could start in three to four months, said Nevin Ray Siefert II, the school's director of administration.

The new school was made possible because of a $400,000 bequest from David Sturgill, a Spring Hill building contractor and real estate agency owner who died in 2009. That won't cover the entire cost of the building, though, so the foundation is undertaking a fundraising campaign, Gatti said.

A bill requiring public school districts to share a larger portion of capital dollars with charter schools failed to gain support in the Legislature. It's unclear if Gulf Coast would have benefited, though, Gatti said.

Gulf Coast has operated with a waiting list since it opened. Each year, dozens of families enter the school's annual lottery admission system. During the lottery held last month, 44 students were accepted to the sixth grade for this fall, and more than 76 were put on a waiting list, Siefert said.

Keeping the campuses small is critical, school officials say.

"The personalized environment of the school allows us to give individualized attention, and that's part of the attraction of the charter," he said.

The school expects to hire a staff of about dozen.

Even as Florida becomes a friendlier state for charters, Hernando County is still largely a frontier. Several companies have tried without success in recent years to earn charter approval, or pulled out of the process before the board could consider their application. One company, Mavericks, fought the district's rejection of its application, then lost an appeal to the state Board of Education.

Scott Tilson said this week that he and his wife, Merritt, have not ruled out another attempt to open a fine arts charter school.

The Tilsons, who own a Spring Hill music store, and fellow board members for the proposed Infusion! School of the Arts pulled their charter application in 2010 after the district's review committee recommended the board deny the plan. The Tilsons said then that the Infusion board would consider the committee's feedback and try again in 2011, then decided not to, citing the state of the economy.

Scott Tilson said Infusion board members are still gauging support in the community and might submit a retooled application.

Groups that plan to apply must submit a letter of intent to the district by June 17. The application deadline is Aug. 1.

Reach Tony Marrero at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Hernando School Board signs off on charter school 04/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 7:59pm]
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