Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Education

Letters reveal nasty turn in Hillsborough, Charter Schools USA fight

TAMPA — It's safe to say the Hillsborough County School District and Charter Schools USA are not getting along.

Frustrated by answers her staff was getting to questions about school governance, superintendent MaryEllen Elia dispatched letters this week to the boards of three schools, saying she'll soon move to terminate their charters.

The reaction?

Unlike other community leaders who often treat Elia with deference, charter board chairman Rod Jurado called her move "a pathetic attempt" to take away parental choice as she deflects attention from "abysmal" performance in the district's schools.

At stake are the Winthrop, Woodmont and Henderson Hammock charters, with a combined enrollment last year of more than 2,000 students. All three are managed by Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA. While they have advisory boards with local representatives, leadership also comes from the nonprofit Florida Charter Educational Foundation, which has close ties to the for-profit company.

For months, Hillsborough officials tried to sort out those relationships. The issue arose in 2013 when the group was involved in a bid for a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base. Confusion over governance was one reason Elia recommended against the MacDill school. The School Board backed her up, and the group appealed to the state.

Inquiries about the three existing schools began about the time the MacDill group withdrew its appeal.

"Although several letters have been exchanged, there has been no documentation submitted by you or the schools to explain the governance structure," said Elia's letter, dated Tuesday.

"The charter holders of Winthrop, Woodmont and Henderson Hammock charter schools have not exercised continuing oversight over the operations of these schools. The governing boards have in fact allowed their educational services providers to perform virtually all of those functions."

Because her staff cannot get clarity, she wrote, "I will recommend the termination of the charters."

The boards have two weeks to request a hearing, Elia wrote. If they do, the hearing will happen within 60 days.

Charter schools use tax dollars, but operate independently of government-run districts. The law calls for an arms-length relationship between governing boards and paid managers. When a district terminates a school's charter, the school generally closes.

The chairman of one of the boards, Bay Area Charter Foundation, took issue not just with the letter, but also with the timing and how it was made public.

District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the letter had been mailed, but Charter Schools USA officials said they learned about it in a television news report Thursday.

The news broke just hours after the group submitted a second bid for a school at MacDill, which it had promised to do by the end of July.

"I find it interesting that the media received an unsigned letter of this magnitude prior to me receiving it," Jurado said in a statement late Thursday.

"We have formally communicated our governance structure. This is the governance structure that the School Board themselves requested and approved. Obviously, we believe this is ridiculous and has absolutely no merit."

Jurado, whose board oversees two of the three charters, described Elia's letter and its release as "a hostile ploy by the superintendent to deflect interest away from the fact that the district's schools performed so abysmally this year. District schools received 23 D's and 7 F's while the two charter schools she is threatening to attempt to close received an A and a C. Our schools' grades improved across the board, while the district's schools declined."

Elia, he wrote, "is making a pathetic attempt to undermine high performing charter schools and attempt to take away the choice parents have made that is best for her students. I am appalled that she would put her political interest ahead of the best interests of the students."

His statements contrast with those of Stephen Mitchell, the Tampa lawyer who chairs the governing board for the planned school at MacDill. Mitchell praised Elia publicly when the School Board debated whether to renew her yearly contract.

On Thursday, before news broke of the letters, Mitchell said, "we have the highest, highest regard for MaryEllen Elia." He commended her charter school office too, saying, "they're trying to do the best job they can."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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