LAND O'LAKES — When it first applied to open in Pasco County, the Imagine School could not convince officials that its plans to open with 434 students were realistic.
The School Board rejected the Virginia-based charter school firm's request for a 2007 contract, and the state Board of Education upheld that decision.
A year later, the Imagine School at Land O'Lakes has registered 424 students to begin next school year, and it has a waiting list of about 180. It has dropped plans to offer prekindergarten in order to make room for more classes of kindergarten through sixth grade.
"We've had a tremendous, tremendous response," principal John Selover said. "We're looking at a bigger group than we had initially planned for."
It's a bigger number than the school district had anticipated, too. And that could prove problematic.
Imagine's charter application sought permission to open with about 280 students. That's the number the School Board approved and submitted to the state for funding purposes, too.
But the district and the charter school have not completed their contract negotiations yet. That document is scheduled to come to the School Board on Tuesday for consideration.
And while the sides have negotiated terms, Imagine has pushed to get its approved student population higher than what it proposed in its application. Selover talked about having 350 students back in March, and now he's angling for 424.
There's nothing that can prevent the school from asking, and nothing that can prevent the district from rejecting the request.
But the state's financial picture is bad enough that some school district officials are warning Selover that Imagine possibly could end up without funding for every student. In dire times, such as after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the state has frozen its student funding at a set date to help balance the budget.
Schools then got no extra money to cover additional students who enrolled.
If that happens this year, as some school finance experts have predicted, then it will affect the charter school, too.
"Right now it's a bone of contention for them," assistant superintendent Renalia DuBose said. "Imagine doesn't understand if the state freezes it, they freeze it. We're trying to work that out."
The charter school has other issues to overcome, as well.
It still does not have county approval to build on the site at Morgan Road and U.S. 41 where it wants to open. Until that gets worked out, the school plans to operate from a 22,000-square-foot professional park about 3 miles west of U.S. 41 on State Road 54.
"We're figuring on being there a full year," Selover said.
He said he wasn't worried about any of the negotiating issues, saying the district has been cooperative in helping the school. The school has its buses on layaway, furniture on order and a book list ready to go. Everyone is jazzed about having an alternative educational choice, he said.
"I've even had a lot of people ask, 'Are you going to do a high school?' " Selover said, quickly adding, "That's not ever been a conversation."
Count Margarida Wainraich among the enthusiasts. She has pulled her two kids out of Sanders Elementary, where she served last year as PTA president, to try the Imagine School.
"I don't want my kid to be one of 1,000. I prefer my kid to be one of 424," Wainraich said. "I'm looking at it as free private school."
She acknowledged that the school might not fly. But if not, she noted, Sanders still will be there: "The way I look at it is, I have absolutely nothing to lose."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.