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Hillsborough officials say charter schools walk fine line between fees and donations

Trinity School for Children at 2402 W Osborne Ave. in Tampa is one of several charter schools on the Hillsborough County school district's radar because of questionable fees charged to parents.

SKIP O'ROURKE | Times

Trinity School for Children at 2402 W Osborne Ave. in Tampa is one of several charter schools on the Hillsborough County school district's radar because of questionable fees charged to parents.

TAMPA — When it came time for the Hillsborough County School District to renew its charter for Trinity School for Children, officials did so with a list of recommendations.

Don't pressure parents to give money, they advised the school. As a recipient of state funding, schooling is supposed to be free. Don't use invoices for donations, as these imply an obligation.

And check with the governing board before a child is tossed out because his parents did not volunteer enough hours.

Just what can be expected of charter school parents is a hot topic as the movement continues to flourish in Florida and nationwide.

The independently run schools cannot charge tuition, attorney Tom Gonzalez said at Tuesday's School Board meeting before a vote on the renewal. They can't charge fees for things students must have for their studies.

Students must have free access to books, even if they are classroom sets that remain at school. They might be asked to pay for some materials, such as workbooks. But if a child cannot pay, he said, the school must make arrangements to make one available.

But, as in public schools, parents are frequently asked to cover extras such as field trips, take part in fundraisers and make various types of donations.

"There are things called enhancement fees," Gonzalez said. "And there is a question that is not always clear of the line between when an enhancement fee becomes tuition, and when it is mandatory as opposed to not, when it's billed as opposed to solicited."

The line can seem hazy, he said, "especially since it seems that an awful lot of charters are pushing up against that line as hard as they can and are, in fact, seeking those funds from a variety of sources through an awful lot of coercion."

Board members said they've taken calls from parents, sometimes after their children have left the charter schools.

"Their parents were unable to pay the enhancement fee, or purchase the books that they require," School Board member Susan Valdes said. In some cases they had to buy items in the school store.

Others described arrangements in which they paid money in lieu of serving volunteer hours, which is often part of the parent contract.

The state Department of Education issued a legal opinion in May that bans that practice.

"The rationale for parent involvement is for parents to be involved," said Jenna Hodgens, supervisor of the Hillsborough charter school office. "So if I'm handing you $25 per hour, I'm not really involved, but you are getting my money."

Hillsborough has 43 charter schools, with enrollment growing faster in 2012-2013 than the statewide rate. It's a sensitive issue, as $68 million in state funds went to charter schools instead of those run by the district.

And, while the district provides some oversight, it cannot immediately close a school unless children's health or safety is compromised or there is clear cause, such as embezzlement.

When the problem is a confusing policy on fees and donations, "you have to give the school time to cure the problem," Hodgens said. "It's due process."

Trinity isn't the only school where requests for money from parents have been questioned.

The district is also monitoring Kid's Community College, which has two schools in Riverview, one elementary and the other middle.

In April, superintendent MaryEllen Elia moved to terminate that charter. After meeting with school officials, she issued a letter in July that allowed the schools to stay open, but warned about several allegations that will lead to more monitoring.

Parents were being asked to donate to the Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonprofit organization that is involved with Kid's Community, Elia wrote.

There were reports that the school charged tuition or registration fees in violation of state law; and also reports of inappropriate employment of relatives.

Calls to Kid's Community College were not returned last week.

At Trinity, spokeswoman Nicole Morgado said the principal was the only official who could give an interview, and she was too busy. In response to written questions about parent payments and volunteer obligations, the school issued this statement:

"As a 15-year high-performing charter school, educating more than 700 children, our focus continues to be the education and development of our students. Since our inception (1999), we have remained in good standing with the Department of Education and the State of Florida. Trinity School for Children is committed to our mission to create a zest for lifelong learning and the creation of a good citizen improving society."

Good charter schools welcome scrutiny, said Lynn Norman-Teck, spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, with more than 400 members.

"I think what the Hillsborough district is doing is a good thing," she said. "They are our sponsors, they approve or disapprove our contracts and they need to be vigilant in what is best for children and the school district."

At the same time, Norman-Teck said even the issue of cash for volunteer hours is not clear-cut.

Busy working parents might be able to volunteer only at evening events, she said. They might offer to help with homework packets. They might buy supplies for the school. "Or some schools will accept a gift card from Staples."

The last example seems more like a cash payment, she acknowledged. But "we find there is more misinformation than malice on the charter schools' part."

Regardless of the sentiment, district officials want to make sure parents understand their rights. In June, Elia sent a letter to all charter parents in the district, informing them that they cannot be placed under any pressure to pay.

"If you have any questions regarding any of the fees requested by the charter school where your child attends," she wrote in closing, "please call the Hillsborough County Charter School Office at 813-272-4049."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Hillsborough officials say charter schools walk fine line between fees and donations 08/31/13 [Last modified: Saturday, August 31, 2013 11:45pm]

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