Thursday, February 22, 2018
Education

Pepin Academies' Pasco charter application raises questions

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning didn't mince words.

The Pepin Academies charter school's application to expand into Pasco had "key sections ... that were statutorily deficient," Browning wrote in an Oct. 14 letter to cofounder Crisha Scolaro. He gave the special education school seven days to submit corrections and clarifications. No amendments, missing documentation or unsolicited information would be accepted, according to district rules.

Pepin hired prominent Pasco land use lawyer Barbara Wilhite, who met the deadline with an 11-page response aiming to explain such concerns as missing cash flow projections and lacking details about how student data would inform instruction. To the former, she wrote, in part:

"Though not specifically stated in the application, the applicant's prudent approach to financial management, as evidenced by years of successful operations in Hillsborough County, dictates that expenditures would not be made until the funds needed for those expenditures are received."

She then offered some math to explain how expenditures would not outpace revenue.

Pepin officials, including Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey — who sits on the charter's local board and backed a March commission resolution supporting Pepin's Pasco expansion — also met with Browning and his staff to provide more information.

At the end of the day, Browning recommended the charter's approval. "Bottom line is, either we're going to have Pepin now or we're going to have Pepin in the future," he told the Times, because eventually it would meet the mark.

His stance surprised some School Board members, who expected a rejection with the message to Pepin to try again with a more complete application. Browning had, after all, already denied Pepin's attempt to circumvent state application rules to open this fall.

The board is scheduled to consider the proposal Tuesday. Pepin, which serves students with disabilities, and has not identified a location for a Pasco campus. Members have been getting calls, and making calls, about the application as they prepare for the vote.

"It bothers me because two years ago we turned somebody else down" for similar deficiencies, board vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley said, referring to a proposal from Rep. Will Weatherford and lawyer Anne Corcoran, the wife of Rep. Richard Corcoran. "I like to be consistent. I'm struggling with that."

Crumbley noted that the superintendent's recommendation indicated that Pepin's application had many areas, including budget and curriculum, that contained more weaknesses than strengths while only partially meeting state requirements.

Listing strengths of the budget section, for instance, Browning's review stated, "The budget was built using past history and averages associated with The Pepin Academies, Tampa. However, specific details were not provided, making it difficult to know how the applicant arrived at the revenue reflected in the budget."

Crumbley said the document left her with plenty of questions.

"It's a great school. I saw it firsthand," she said of the Hillsborough campus. "But if they have a deficient application, what am I supposed to do?"

Board member Joanne Hurley shared some of those concerns.

"There are still areas I believe could have been answered better," Hurley said.

She sought advice from school board lawyer Nancy Alfonso, who assured Hurley that the application met muster. Remaining issues, she added, can be dealt with in contract negotiations.

Hurley took issue with how Browning handled the application, noting he gave Pepin more opportunities to respond to problems than the district had ever afforded any other applicant.

"I wish we had followed the same process that we had for all previous applicants until board policy changes," Hurley said..

Browning said it was within both law and policy to give Pepin the chance to clarify its application. He acknowledged that he gave Pepin the option of withdrawing and returning with a more complete package.

Instead, they decided to offer explanations and details, and he found the added specifics convincing.

"They meet the criteria to be recommended for approval as a charter school," he said, adding that applicants need not meet all state standards completely.

New state law allows a charter to apply earlier in the year, so Pepin could have revised its documents and gotten them to the district in time for reconsideration of an August 2014 opening, board lawyer Dennis Alfonso said.

In the past, the board has complained that the district did little to help local charter applicants navigate through the process. At the same time, members have also criticized the state for tying their hands when they wished to reject a charter that they found unacceptable.

Browning said he intends to further reform the process, and that Pepin was simply the first applicant to experience developing new procedures.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

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