Saturday, November 18, 2017
Education

Hillsborough school officials raise questions about control at three charters

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TAMPA — The Hillsborough County school district is questioning three charter schools about a governance problem similar to the one that scuttled a planned school at MacDill Air Force Base.

At issue are two organizations that oversee Henderson Hammock Charter School in Citrus Park, Winthrop Charter in Riverview and Woodmont Charter in Temple Terrace.

"It is hard for us to determine where decisions are being made for these schools and by whom," Jenna Hodgens, the district's director of charters, wrote in three March 4 letters to the schools.

Charters, which get state money but are run independently of public school districts, report to governing boards. In Hillsborough, the boards are supposed to consist mostly of local residents, and the meetings should be held near the school so that they are accessible to staff, students and parents.

But two foundations whose boards oversee the three schools are based in South Florida and are connected. The Florida Charter Educational Foundation, which governs one school and is a managing member of the entity that runs the other two, is based in Fort Lauderdale, at the same address as Charter Schools USA.

That for-profit company is the hired manager of all three schools. Charter Schools USA would have managed the MacDill school, as well.

Minutes on the Charter Schools USA website show that some board meetings have taken place in Miami, West Palm Beach and Jacksonville, rather than near the Hillsborough schools.

While none of this is new, Hodgens said the issues came to light when her staff reviewed the foundation's proposal for the MacDill school.

The governance structure for that school, which also involved a separate advisory group at MacDill, was so confusing that the district turned that project down. The foundation filed an appeal with the state, then withdrew it and said it will reapply.

The MacDill issue prompted Hodgens to research the membership and meeting habits of the two foundations. "There's just not clarity to me," she said.

She sent letters to both boards on March 4, requesting a meeting. So far there has been a conference call between attorneys, but the district still wants a face-to-face meeting.

The foundations look forward to the meeting, said Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the organizations and Charter Schools USA.

"We have absolutely no concerns with respect to compliance with this issue," Reynolds said.

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