LAND O'LAKES — Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino on Tuesday accused a well regarded charter school of attempting to "cherry-pick" only the brightest students to attend its classes.
She suggested that the A-rated Countryside Montessori charter school was attempting to find ways to not serve students with special education needs, and said the school could be in violation of federal education law.
"School choice, when I was in the Legislature, was meant to be school choice for parents, not for schools to cherry-pick," Fiorentino said.
Steve Wenzel, a lawyer for the charter school, said the two sides simply had a disagreement over contract language that he expected could be worked out.
"We would characterize it differently," Wenzel said, referring to Fiorentino's comment. "We are looking forward to mediation."
On Tuesday evening, school principal Dennise Ondina issued a stronger statement defending Countryside Montessori, touting the school's efforts to identify and assist students with special learning needs.
"It is regrettable that a public official would attempt to tarnish the longstanding reputation of Countryside Montessori Charter School, an established high performing Pasco County school," Ondina wrote to the Times.
Fiorentino's remarks came after School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso told the board that efforts to reach a contract renewal for Countryside Montessori had floundered after nearly six months. He asked the board if it would grant the school an extension of its expired contract while the sides mediate their differences.
The board unanimously approved adding 120 days to the school's operating agreement, with the expectation of some final decision at the end of the four months. That could be a new contract, or shutting down the K-7 school with 224 students.
The stumbling point involves Countryside Montessori's proposal for contract language relating to its admission of students.
On one point, the school seeks to give preferential status to students with prior Montessori experience. State law requires charter schools to hold open lotteries for their seats if they have more applicants than vacancies.
On another, the school wants to severely streamline the way in which it determines whether it can serve students with special needs.
The district wants to require the school to keep such students until the two sides can agree on the best place for them to learn, whether at Countryside Montessori with special added accommodations, or elsewhere. The charter school has asked for binding mediation within 15 days of any disagreement over the students' placement, so it can quickly move on.
That stance sparked Fiorentino's critical commentary. She said she felt compelled to speak up, because she wanted her views on the record in the event that her successor takes office before the contract comes back to the board. Fiorentino's term ends Nov. 19.
"I question their good faith in working with us," Fiorentino said.
Ondina took issue with Fiorentino's characterization of the school. She said Countryside had over three years gained a strong reputation for its work identifying students with specific learning disabilities and then providing evidence-based interventions.
"We feel that it is inappropriate for the superintendent, who has never visited our school, to question our practices and our 'good faith in working' with the District," Ondina wrote.
She added that she has no expectation that Countryside Montessori will close over this contract haggling, and called it "misleading" to say otherwise. Ultimately it is the district's call, however, on whether to further extend the contract.
Ondina said she looked forward to working with the district for a reasonable resolution.
No one expected the contract renewal to create such a stir.
The school had consistently earned A grades from the state and recently received "high performing" status from the state Department of Education, theoretically making it easier for a charter to grow and also get a longer-term contract to operate.
In fact, Fiorentino initially recommended back in May that the School Board grant Countryside Montessori an additional 15 years on its charter. That came just weeks after she also supported the school's addition of a seventh-grade class.
Negotiations fell apart, though, leading to Tuesday's action while mediation approaches.
Alfonso told the board that resolution is possible, if each side remains flexible.
"The two issues are not insurmountable. But there are some hard lines being drawn," Alfonso said. "I think we can at least be creative in coming up with solutions."
Board member Steve Luikart inquired about giving the school less time to arrive at a contract, noting it already had several months to bargain. But he relented after Alfonso advised that in the world of legal action, 120 days is reasonable.
Still, board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong cautioned, the mediation will not be binding, so the board — and families attending the school — might not get a firm answer on the contract at the end of the period.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.