Saturday, November 18, 2017
Education

Pasco school district officials recommend approval of K12 charter school

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LAND O'LAKES — K12 Florida, a charter school outfit that wants to create the Florida Virtual Academy of Pasco County, is under state investigation for allegedly hiring uncertified teachers in another county.

But that does not necessarily doom K12's application for a charter school in Pasco County, said Nancy Scowcroft, the Pasco school district's charter school supervisor.

Scowcroft provided information about the state investigation and other concerns about K12 in her recommendation, which went to School Board members on Wednesday. But she said those concerns don't rise to the level of denying the K12 charter school application.

"The recommendation to approve is because there is no statutory good cause that would hold up on appeal," Scowcroft said. The applicants "took all the comments from the districts that denied them last year and incorporated them."

The final call rests with the School Board, which will discuss the application at its next meeting.

This week, though, the Marion County School Board unanimously rejected a similar charter proposal by the company.

Several Marion board members cited the state investigation into the subsidiary of Virginia-based K12 Inc. as a key factor in their decision. Administrators, meanwhile, talked about the issues of having enough certified teachers, the way K12 planned to target its students and the fact that the school did not have local people tied to it, district spokesman Kevin Christian said.

"The (Marion County) School Board went forward with the denial knowing and likely expecting to be involved in an appeals process or some sort of legal action," Christian said.

Even without the state review, the for-profit K12 — which already does business in Pasco as a virtual school contractor — has been suspect in the eyes of many school district officials around Florida and the country. A year ago, company subsidiaries tried to win charters in several counties including Pasco but were denied in each instance.

A New York Times exposé on K12, published in December 2011, fanned the flames of the doubters. The story, which revealed practices such as K12 teachers dealing with as many as 250 students apiece, described the firm as one "that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards."

Company officials have downplayed the negativity. The primary contact for K12 Florida asked for emailed questions from the Times on Wednesday but did not provide responses.

The controversies have grabbed some Pasco School Board members' attention.

"I've got suspicions," board member Alison Crumbley said after reviewing Scowcroft's recommendation. "My red flags were already up."

Crumbley said she has begun calling people around Florida to learn more about K12's activities. She said board approval of the charter is far from guaranteed, as far as she's concerned. She noted some of the potential problems raised in Scowcroft's memo as additional points for consideration. Among them, Scowcroft wrote:

• "K12 Florida, LLC is currently under investigation by the (Florida Department of Education) for the reported use of uncertified teachers to teach online classes in the Seminole County School District's contracted K12 virtual instruction program, which would be a clear violation of Florida law. The investigation raises significant areas of concern, including whether K12 would provide Pasco students with Florida certified teachers."

• "The staffing plan does not have an adequate number of teachers to support the anticipated enrollment."

• "There is no clear basis for the school's enrollment projections." The school aims to have 395 students within five years of opening.

• "There is a considerable concern whether the applicant can meet the needs of ESE students requiring unique curriculum programs and services."

• "There is no clear and convincing evidence that the governing body will have financial authority over the school or be independent from the (education service provider, K12). There is no clear and convincing evidence of an arm's length relationship between the governing board and the ESP."

The board must ensure that whatever it approves "is in the best interest of our students," Crumbley said. "It doesn't sound like that is."

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso stressed that the district's review of the application was made on the document alone, and whether it met statutory requirements.

"If the board has other concerns they want us to look at, we'll address them," Alfonso said.

Board members faced a similar situation a year ago, when the administration advised approval of a Charter Schools USA application that the board didn't want to authorize. The firm lacked a location for its school, as well as a local governing board, a student transportation plan and nonprofit status.

After Alfonso and superintendent Heather Fiorentino said the application met the letter of the law, though, the board reluctantly voted for it. The company has yet to arrive at a contract with the district to open its school.

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

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