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Hillsborough superintendent pushes back on MacDill charter school plan

TAMPA — Responding to a charter group's pitch for a new school at MacDill Air Force Base, Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Thursday that she has reservations about the for-profit company that would run the school.

What's more, she said the school district has made multiple offers to expand its services to military children, including a K-8 school in South Tampa, and already provides much of what they need.

"I have school psychologists at every school," Elia told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. "I have school nurses at every school."

Elia was preceded two days earlier by a group that included base commander Col. Scott DeThomas and representatives from Charter Schools USA, which would operate MacDill Charter Academy, serving 875 children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

They said military children need options on the base in addition to A-rated Tinker Elementary School, and have special needs related to their parents' frequent deployment.

"I've been working closely with Col. DeThomas to address all those needs," Elia said. "Those resources are there for the children."

Such public relations battles are rare, if not unprecedented in a district that now has 43 charters and is set to rule on 14 more applications as early as Dec. 10.

Charter schools use state funding but are operated independently of local school districts. Typically, applicants in Hillsborough work with district staff, and about half withdraw along the way. For those that survive the process, the vast majority are approved by Elia and the School Board.

The rationale behind a military charter school is that off-base families who often live in the Brandon area would like to be able to have their children close to them during the day instead of in their neighborhood schools.

In addition, proponents say, the school would offer support services tailored to the needs of military families — something that, according to Elia, the district already does.

While Tinker is near capacity, some military children are able to attend nearby Ballast Point, Anderson and Lanier elementary schools through the choice program, Elia said.

She also said the district has offered to operate a charter school if it were built on the base. And she said she floated an offer to expand Monroe Middle School, which serves the base population, to include grades K-8 and open it up to military families on and off the base.

Neither offer was given serious consideration, she said. "It was clear that there was an agenda for a charter."

Attorney Stephen Mitchell, who is assisting the pro-charter group, discussed the concept of the school with her, she said. But they did not tell her they were submitting the application.

"A lot of the people that have been part of a group that has supported the charter are people that I have been working with as partners for many, many years," she said. "And none of them talked to me."

While no decision has been made, Elia cited two concerns she has about the application.

First: Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA operates three schools in Hillsborough, and one, Woodmont Charter, is rated "F" by the state. The company has two other F-rated schools in Orange and Manatee counties, she said.

If any charter school gets consecutive "F" grades, "I'm in the position where I would close them," she said. Question about the school's governance structure exist as well, she said.

Charter Schools USA spokeswoman Colleen Reynolds did not deny that three of its schools had "F" grades. The Hillsborough district has four F-rated schools of its own, and would have far more without the state safety net, Reynolds pointed out.

"We are not afraid of going into neighborhoods where the children are at-risk or struggling," Reynolds said. "We are a high-performing organization and the people at MacDill know that about us. They vetted that out before they hired us."

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

Hillsborough superintendent pushes back on MacDill charter school plan 11/21/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 22, 2013 12:02am]
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