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Pasco School Board sets final deadline for Charter Schools USA

LAND O'LAKES — A large charter school management firm that won reluctant approval to open a school in Pasco County might soon lose its chance to start that school.

The Pasco School Board on Tuesday gave Charter Schools USA two weeks to complete contract negotiations for its proposed K-8 school.

Otherwise, the district will consider its application dead.

"They've already exceeded the time frame that's allowed" in statute for reaching contract terms, board chairwoman Joanne Hurley said after the meeting. "We gave them as a courtesy the opportunity and extended it, so if they wish to contact us they could."

Richard Page, vice president of development for Charter Schools USA, said he saw no problem with the board's decision.

"We do expect to have the contract finalized within that two-week window which has been laid out," Page said. "We will open the school in 2013."

He said the company could not get its school built in time for a fall 2012 debut.

Charter Schools USA, based in Broward County, seeks to take advantage of new state law that allows "high performing" charter schools to replicate themselves in Florida without significant oversight. Pasco School Board members had many concerns about the company's proposal, such as a lack of local involvement, but approved entering contract talks last fall because they felt state law required it.

The board just as reluctantly denied several other local charter school proposals because the staff determined those applications did not meet statutory standards for approval.

After the district sent the charter group a proposed contract in December, though, district officials never heard back from Charter Schools USA until early February. That's when the firm's representatives asked to defer all contract talks until fall 2012.

A couple of days later, they suggested simply delaying the school's opening date until fall 2013, but then renewed their request to delay negotiations two weeks later.

District officials didn't like the idea of putting off contract talks.

The board approved them under current statute, board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said, and "it would seem like it would be appropriate to negotiate a contract in that same atmosphere. … If we delay the contract negotiations, we might be looking at doing it under different statute."

She moved to adopt a staff recommendation to allow the firm to open its school in 2013, but only if it wraps up contract talks within the next two weeks.

The board would be within its right to declare the charter dead because the 75-day negotiation window has closed, attorney Dennis Alfonso advised. Giving an added 14 days is simply to provide the benefit of the doubt for talks, just as the district would to any applicant, he said.

Board members made clear during a workshop later Tuesday that they want to make it as easy as possible for charter school applicants to work through the application process.

Some applicants complained that they felt the district was not providing enough input and assistance to help complete an acceptable document, board members said.

"The feedback I got … was that the substance of the (post-application) interview didn't address the deficiencies," board member Alison Crumbley said.

Charter schools supervisor Nancy Scowcroft explained that she's available year-round to answer questions and give advice. But once the application is under review, she said, it's no longer the time for making corrections.

"If you are going to apply for something, you should understand what you are applying for," superintendent Heather Fiorentino added.

Board members asked for the staff to smooth over procedures and communications to make it clear to potential charter school applicants that assistance is available up to the application deadline. Scowcroft said she would work out the details.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614, or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

In other business, the School Board:

• Heard a proposal from assistant superintendent David Scanga to have elementary schools make plans for possible innovative programs to bring in more students. Board members said they liked the concept, but wanted more information about curriculum, finances and examples from other school systems. "I am in favor of providing opportunities, but I want them to be well thought out," board member Allen Altman said.

• Learned the district received an exemplary audit on its professional development programs from the state. The district was commended as a model, earning top marks and vastly improving over its 2007 audit.

• Heard staff explain its concerns with a management audit by the Florida Associations of District School Superintendents. Department heads challenged many of the staffing findings in the report as inaccurate, and disputed many of the recommendations. Board members, who demanded to discuss this year-old report a few weeks ago, thanked the staff for its comments and did not debate the report.

Pasco School Board sets final deadline for Charter Schools USA 03/06/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 6:02pm]
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