TAMPA — School district leaders are talking tough as Gov. Rick Scott decides whether to sign a sweeping bill on education.
They're cautioning against giving too much money and power to charter schools, which operate independently despite getting state funding. They're expressing indignation on social media that the Legislature would starve public schools in the name of choice.
The reality, however, is more nuanced in Hillsborough County, where charter schools are becoming an integral part of the education landscape, approaching 9 percent of all students.
The same district leaders who complain about the Legislature and call for a veto also say they need charter schools to accommodate population growth, as funds are scarce to build new schools. This is especially true in the southernmost part of the county, where approved developments that were dormant during the recession are now springing to life.
Some also recognize that charter schools can give a second chance to students who fall through the cracks in the district system. Board member Susan Valdes, speaking at the May 16 board meeting, described two such students, one who lost a parent to military combat and the other who had been ill.
"If the governor signs the bill," Valdes said, addressing administrators in the auditorium, "hey, life lesson that we should learn about really, truly taking care of our children — not just taking their money."
Nowhere is the forward march of charters more evident than in a group of schools run by Charter Schools USA, a for-profit company in Fort Lauderdale.
Four Hillsborough schools now operate under the Charter Schools USA umbrella. The newest, SouthShore Charter Academy in Riverview, took in nearly 800 students in its first year. It was supposed to start with 661. But interest was so high, its managers convinced the school district to allow more.
A fifth school, Waterset, is preparing to open just 3 miles away.
"They had 1,300 apply for 661 seats," said Rod Jurado, who chairs the schools' local governing board. "So we went back to the county and said, 'Can we do it again?' And they said, 'You should have told us sooner.' But we're opening with 798."
Add about 3,000 combined at Henderson Hammock, Winthrop and Woodmont, and this group could account for roughly a quarter of the district's charter students when school resumes on Aug. 10.
And they aren't finished.
The group has approvals for two more schools, although they have struggled to find land. One idea that they've tossed around is to expand Winthrop, currently a K-8, to include high school grades.
"We wanted to go to New Tampa," Jurado said. "And Lorraine Duffy (the district's manager of planning and growth management) said, 'What good is that going to do us? We don't need any schools there. We need more schools where you are right now.' "
Jurado's group isn't the only one moving aggressively into Hillsborough.
Kids' Community College has steadily added schools in the Riverview area, in some cases combining elementary with middle schools, since it arrived on the scene in 2005. Academica, which is active in South Florida, will open a Sports Leadership and Management school in Citrus Park this year.
Technically, Jurado's nonprofit board — which goes by the name of Florida Charter Education Foundation and Bay Area Charter Foundation — is in charge of the Hillsborough schools.
But Charter Schools USA and its majority owner, Jonathan Hage, are deeply involved in every aspect of the operation.
They say on their website: "We handle every aspect from marketing for new students, teacher recruitment, curriculum development, equipment and book ordering to financial management and oversight. . . . That's the Charter Schools USA way."
They also handle real estate acquisitions through a network of limited liability corporations also connected to Hage, as well as construction.
Between rent and management fees, Charter Schools USA collected $1 million out of about $8 million in tax revenue that went to Henderson Hammock Charter School, according to a 2016 state audit.
More than $1 million more was used to pay the school's mortgage.
The management fees are reduced or waived if a school is under-enrolled, Jurado said.
Still, such intricate financial relationships have fueled the ire of the League of Women Voters and other staunch advocates of traditional public schools.
People on both sides of the debate about charters argue that state laws and funding formulas favor the other side. Key differences make comparisons difficult. For example, charter schools generally do not provide transportation, while government schools do, often at a huge loss.
And charter schools do not offer the same services districts do to meet the needs of disabled and medically fragile children — another costly aspect of government-run education.
While charter schools thrive in the suburbs, the Legislature envisioned them as alternatives to chronically underperforming schools, which are often in urban areas. Part of the controversial education bill would fund charter "schools of hope" to replace a list of schools that includes 12 in Hillsborough.
Just how that would work has not yet been explained. District officials said they expect more details if and when Scott signs the bill into law.
Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356.