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MacDill charter school gets preliminary 'no' from Hillsborough officials

TAMPA — Hillsborough school officials are poised to deny the application for a new charter school at MacDill Air Force Base, citing concerns about the way it would be governed.

The School Board votes Tuesday on the proposed MacDill Charter Academy, and a last-minute meeting is planned Monday to try to iron out differences between district staff and the charter school group.

But staff found inconsistencies in the charter's 475-page application.

The document contains varying descriptions of a local advisory council. Some parts give it authority over the school's budget and operations, while others cede authority to the nonprofit Florida Charter Educational Foundation, which would hold the charter. The school's for-profit management company, Charter Schools USA, works closely with the foundation.

"This plan of management raises concerns with the arms-length nature of the relationship that would exist between Charter Schools USA and FCEF," Jenna Hodgens, the district's charter schools director, wrote Nov. 22. If the foundation is the school's governing board, "there does not appear to be sufficient separation between the two entities."

Officials at Charter Schools USA and the school's local backers said they met with the district to discuss the governance issue. "We've offered to clarify it in writing," said Richard Page, the company's executive vice president for development. The district did not accept the offer, he said, adding that "this structure is not uncommon to other schools."

The school would serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Charters, which use tax dollars but are run independently of public school districts, are increasingly popular in Florida and nationwide. Enrollment in Hillsborough charters is growing by 20 percent a year, with 43 schools now open.

The MacDill proposal is one of seven on the agenda for Tuesday's School Board meeting. District staff recommends approval for the others, including a middle school in Lutz and a dual-enrollment school in Town 'N Country where students can earn college associate's degrees.

Roughly half the applications that come to the district each year are green-lighted by staff. Others withdraw during the review process or are denied. The board rarely, if ever, overrules staff. Those that are denied can appeal to the state.

Backers of the MacDill charter took the unusual step of calling a meeting in November with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, accompanied by the base commander, Col. Scott DeThomas.

DeThomas said military families need a charter school because Tinker Elementary, the A-rated school on the base, cannot accommodate those who live off-base, primarily in the Brandon area. In grades 6 through 8, base children are assigned to Monroe Middle, a C-rated school in South Tampa. Most go elsewhere, DeThomas said.

Days later, superintendent MaryEllen Elia made her own address to the editorial board. In addition to the governance issue, she said she was troubled that Charter Schools USA already operates an F-rated school in Temple Terrace.

Elia said the district already provides adequate services to military students. She said she offered to convert Monroe into a K-8 school serving military children from off the base. She got no response, she said, concluding that there was "an agenda" for a privately run charter school.

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

MacDill charter school gets preliminary 'no' from Hillsborough officials 12/05/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 5, 2013 10:20pm]
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