TAMPA — By law, Florida charter schools are supposed to be organized or run by nonprofit groups with local roots.
On Tuesday, in a vote with statewide implications, the Hillsborough County School Board unanimously rejected an applicant that met precisely the opposite description, according to its attorney: not a legal nonprofit, and controlled by a corporation 1,000 miles away.
Representatives from Virginia-based Imagine Schools, which had hoped to open a 414-student school in Riverview next fall, hotly disputed the board's rationale. They said board attorney Tom Gonzalez was misinterpreting the state's charter school law.
"I can find you five attorneys for every one who holds his position," said Karl Huber, Imagine's state director of development.
But if Hillsborough is correct, 11 other Imagine schools in Florida could be operating with invalid charters, including schools in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Charter schools are authorized and funded through local districts, but set their own policies and programs.
Huber said the district had wildly misstated the proposed school's projected debts to Imagine — $250,000 in the first year, not $1.2 million.
And members of the Riverview school's local board insisted they'd be completely independent of the company.
"I just want you to understand, the board absolutely controls the school, the principal, the faculty and the budget," said parent Matt Urbanovsky.
Company officials said the affiliate behind those schools, Imagine Schools Non-Profit Inc., is recognized in Virginia as a nonprofit group, but has not received federal nonprofit status it has been seeking since 2005.
But Hillsborough officials said company documents show Imagine would retain the power to nominate and dismiss those local board members, violating Florida's requirement that they be fully independent of charter management companies.
And even if its Virginia parent is nonprofit, said board attorney Gonzalez, the Riverview startup is registered as a limited liability company.
"That's the opinion of their attorney, that you can have a not-for-profit LLC under law," Gonzalez said. "I disagree."
Imagine has asked the Florida Department of Education to resolve that question, and to rule that all its previously approved charters be declared valid. Officials from the Pasco and Pinellas districts said they were satisfied their Imagine schools were operating as legal nonprofits.
But a Florida Department of State official told the St. Petersburg Times that he backed Hillsborough's interpretation.
"Under Florida law, there is no nonprofit LLC," said Jay Kassees, director of the Division of Corporations.
Almost lost in the legal tangle Tuesday were the pleas by parents for a high-quality education for their children.
"We need to have choices for them, and options to be successful," said parent Jill Horner, whose son commutes to a school in Manatee County. "He loves going to school at Imagine School."
The board approved applications by five other groups — Hillsborough Charter Academy, A.T. Jones Academy, New Springs Schools, Advantage Academy, and Kids' Community College Middle Charter — to open schools in the district, which already hosts 27 charters.
But members said they hoped parents would give the district's regular schools another try.
"If we are not meeting your children's needs, we want to hear from you," said Carol Kurdell.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.