LAND O'LAKES — A well-regarded charter school for students with special needs has won initial approval to open in Pasco County despite concerns over the way its application was handled.
Pasco School Board members said they had only positive views of Pepin Academies, which operates in Tampa and is looking to expand northward.
"I would be very pleased if the school were added in this county," vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley said.
But Crumbley and other board members voiced displeasure with the process that superintendent Kurt Browning used in reviewing Pepin's application and bringing his recommendation to the board.
Browning stepped away from past practice in giving Pepin a chance to respond to questions about its financial and academic viability, as reflected in its submissions. He said it was only fair to give the applicant a chance to clarify the information it provided.
"As a new superintendent, I have taken a new approach … on how we need to evaluate charter schools," Browning said, explaining that the added details convinced him of Pepin's viability.
His staff initially suggested denying the application, so the about-face caught some board members off guard.
Board member Joanne Hurley, who cast the only vote against the charter, chastised Browning for offering Pepin what she considered a "do-over," an opportunity not afforded to past applicants with similar problems.
Browning met with Pepin officials in his office to let them know where his staff found deficiencies in the application — such things as missing cash flow projections — and then gave the school seven days to provide clarifications in writing. He said he accepted only technical information and corrections, and nothing substantive.
"You have a new way of doing things, but you didn't give the board notice," Hurley said.
Browning said he didn't think he needed to inform the board if he was changing procedures based on its existing policies.
Hurley further argued that Pepin was permitted to submit substantive changes, against law and policy. Even then, she said, "I still found weaknesses in the application."
Browning responded that Pepin could have simply resubmitted in January, so it made sense to work with them now. "Which I think would have been far more preferable," Hurley shot back.
Board member Steve Luikart said he also would have liked to have more time to review the information presented, considering that Browning provided late documents to the board. At the same time, he and others said they did appreciate Browning's more open way of dealing with charter applicants.
"It looks to me that what occurred is what this board wanted to occur when we ran into issues a couple of years ago," board member Allen Altman said.
The district still must negotiate a contract with Pepin before the school may open.