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Questions raised over lawmaker's push for charter school bill

TALLAHASSEE — Rep. Erik Fresen, who sits on several education committees in the Florida House, is again raising eyebrows for his family ties to a Miami-Dade charter school company.

Fresen's sister and brother-in-law run Academica, a for-profit company that manages dozens of charter schools.

Last week, Fresen slipped language into a bill that would prohibit cities from imposing stricter zoning and building restrictions on charter schools than on traditional public schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run.

The provision is aimed in part at South Miami, which recently approved charter school regulations that could directly affect Academica. The company, Mayor Philip Stoddard said, may be looking to expand Somerset Academy at SoMi, where Fresen's twin sons go to school. And Academica has expressed interest in building a school in Palmetto Bay.

Fresen scoffed at the idea that he put forth the provision to benefit his family. His brother-in-law, Fernando Zulueta, runs Academica with Fresen's sister, Maggie. And Fresen is a land-use consultant for Civica, an architectural firm that has designed several Academica schools.

"There's nothing you can do up here to specifically benefit anyone," he said. "What you're really talking about is the entire industry of charter schools."

State law requires legislators to disclose within 15 days if a vote could benefit them, a relative or business associate. Fresen, who voted for HB 7195 in committee, said he has never had to abstain from a vote because of a conflict with his family's business.

Lawmakers employed by school districts, he pointed out, still vote on the state education budget: "Those, I think, are more direct conflicts," Fresen said.

So far, the provision is not in the Senate version of the charter schools bill, SB 1546. Both chambers are expected to vote on the legislation this week.

Fresen's provision was added by Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, to a wide-ranging bill she is sponsoring that would make it easier for charter schools to expand. Fresen said he suggested the language because he is concerned about a "trend" among municipalities, including South Miami and Palmetto Bay, of passing ordinances he called illegal.

Florida law states that charter schools are public schools — and they should be treated as such, Fresen said.

But while school districts must meet certain criteria to expand or build a traditional public school — such as hold public hearings — charter schools are often exempt. The new provision would prevent cities and counties from setting some of those rules at the municipal level, said Tucker Gibbs, a Miami land-use attorney who is fighting a proposed Academica school in Coral Gables.

Last year, residents who opposed the Coral Gables K-8 school at University Baptist Church, which is in Fresen's House district, criticized his family connections to Academica.

South Miami recently adopted more stringent zoning rules for charter schools after Academica's Somerset Academy at SoMi opened its doors in an industrial district. The school has clogged traffic and created a safety problem, Mayor Stoddard said.

Stoddard thinks the state representative took notice of his city's ordinance because of his family ties to the school, and because he thinks SoMi Academy has plans to grow.

"He's got money in the fight. His family stands to lose a profit based on the creation of charter schools in South Miami," Stoddard said.

Lynn Norman-Teck, a spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, said she was unaware of any immediate plans for expansion at the South Miami school.

Norman-Teck said the consortium lobbied for Fresen's provision — not because of the South Miami ordinance, but because charter schools have faced pushback from cities across the state.

"What we're asking for is clarification of that language," Norman-Teck said.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Marc Caputo and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com.

Questions raised over lawmaker's push for charter school bill 04/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 11:15pm]
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