LAND O'LAKES — Close to three dozen parents turned out Tuesday to urge the Pasco County School Board to let their charter school grow.
They left disappointed.
Board members unanimously rejected the Imagine School at Land O'Lakes' request to expand its maximum enrollment by 102 students, to 650, citing concerns with the school's declining enrollment, possibly troubled finances and other related matters. The school has seen its student count drop by 13 percent in the past year.
Imagine principal Kathy Helean suggested that the school would grow once it has a new, permanent campus. One is planned for Sunlake Boulevard north of State Road 54, she said, but the school needs a guarantee that it can add students to get financial commitments to build.
"We cannot develop our permanent facility if we cannot fill all the seats," Helean told the board. "We recognize that we are taking the risk of attracting parents and students to our school."
The school has submitted plans to the county, but has not yet received any approvals from the Development Review Committee or any other entity.
School Board vice chairman Allen Altman doubted the notion that Imagine could win all the needed permits and have a new school open by October, as presented.
"I don't want to get parents upset, and I don't want to burst your bubble," he told the crowd. "But if you have not gotten to DRC yet, it will be a miraculous thing" to have the school ready by the fall.
He said he would need to see the school's financial statements proving it can remain fiscally viable if it were to build the facility and then not meet enrollment projections. District chief financial officer Olga Swinson noted that the school has run deficits in the past, surviving only because the parent Imagine School company in Virginia covered the losses.
With decreasing enrollment, Swinson said, the school could run in the red again.
Helean said the parent Imagine company has pledged to cover the construction costs if the school does not meet student projections. But she remained confident the school would grow if it is in a new facility.
"A lot of parents don't want their children going to an office park," said Linda Ann Spurza, referring to the school's temporary location on State Road 54. "The new school is going to be bringing a lot of parents. If you would allow the extra enrollment, we're going to fill it."
Board members had their doubts, though. They noted that some other Pasco charter schools have less appealing permanent facilities than Imagine's temporary site, yet they have waiting lists while Imagine shrinks.
Assistant superintendent Renalia DuBose and charter schools supervisor Nancy Scowcroft said they also have sought more information about the construction project, noting that Imagine's expansions have proven controversial in other parts of the country.
Reports have indicated that the company has a complex arrangement in which it builds the campus through one subsidiary, owns it through another and then leases the buildings to the actual school, which pays state money to the parent company to rent the property.
Scowcroft said Imagine School at Land O'Lakes has not yet provided details about the finances behind the construction project.
After the board vote, parent Lisa Deubel blasted the board for its stance.
"These schools are hideous here," she said, criticizing Oakstead Elementary in particular for failing to meet her children's academic needs. Imagine, by contrast, is "phenomenal," she said.
"Please reconsider," she said. "It's a shame, and I am sorely disappointed."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.