TAMPA — A Hillsborough County school district panel is recommending the denial of charter school applications backed by two companies, including the national Imagine Schools chain.
The staff committee sharply challenged Imagine's proposed governance system, curriculum and budget, and said problems at some of the company's 12 Florida schools suggest it "does not show adequate competence for opening an additional school." It also challenged the viability of a local board that would run two schools with Fort Lauderdale-based Mavericks in Education.
The School Board is due to vote Tuesday on those applications, along with plans from five other groups the panel is supporting. And it's possible superintendent MaryEllen Elia could offer the board different advice.
"The final recommendation is up to the superintendent," said Hillsborough spokesman Stephen Hegarty.
Charters use public funds but have independence to innovate with their own programs and policies. And it appears the road to gain approval for such schools is getting steeper.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called on districts to close down under-performing charter schools, while supporting those that excel.
Last spring, Hillsborough threatened to strip the licenses of five of its 27 charter schools due to poor academic performance, as well as financial problems in some cases. It followed through on that threat for three schools, and a fourth agreed to be taken over by the district.
Of 20 applications filed this year to open charter schools in the county, just eight are left. Ten groups withdrew their applications but are receiving help from the district and may resubmit them later, Hegarty said. An application by Padah's Academy was rejected by the school board on Sept. 15, and another applicant was dropped after missing a required training session.
Academic problems factored into the review committee's recommendations for Imagine, according to district documents. One third of the company's 12 Florida schools earned a state grade of D or F last year, and one is "deemed in financial emergency." The company runs schools in both Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The panel said the non-profit status of an Imagine subsidiary that would run its proposed school in Riverview was not valid under Florida law, according to the school board's attorney. It said the new school would have to borrow too much money from that subsidiary, and its board would have too little independence from it.
Kathy Helean, a start-up principal for Imagine, said the district had previously approved a similar application to open the school. But she was forced to resubmit that plan after encountering facility problems and missing a deadline. "We reapplied with the exact same governance model written into this application as was approved two years ago," Helean said. "Our question is, what has changed?"
Mavericks has applied to open two high schools in central Tampa and Ybor City that would serve dropouts or students at risk of doing so.
But the district committee said the schools' proposed board would likely be controlled by the for-profit company, rather than being independent as required by state law.
It said the application was riddled with problems, including erroneous references to opening the school in Palm Beach or Broward counties. And it said only one of the proposed six local board members had interacted with the district.
"Four individuals attended the interview with the district and represented themselves as board members, but are not mentioned in the application," the panels said. "They were unable to answer any questions at the interview."
Applicant Saba Baptiste said the district rejected a similar Mavericks application last year, after expressing concerns over her board's relationship to the for-profit management company.
"I just hope the superintendent overrules (the recommendation) because of the dropout crisis," she said. "We have a huge problem. All you have to do is look out the window, and you see more people on the corner than in the classroom."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.