Sunday, February 25, 2018
Education

Plans shifting for three Pasco charter schools

LAND O'LAKES — A charter school that the Pasco County School Board approved in 2011 with strong reservations won't be opening its doors.

Charter Schools USA, doing business as Florida Educational Charter Foundation Inc., failed to find a financially viable location, foundation chairman Ken Haiko told the district in a letter asking the board to rescind its charter agreement.

"We will continue to look for suitable property, and will reapply when we find something," Haiko told the Tampa Bay Times via email. It's one of three charter schools seeing changes from their initial Pasco County plans.

The recently approved Pepin Academies has decided to relocate before opening, prompting questions about its long-term prospects. And Florida Virtual Academy, another charter the School Board tried to prevent, is suffering much lower enrollment than projected.

District charter school supervisor Nancy Scowcroft said she is monitoring each situation closely.

School Board members expressed misgivings from the start over permitting a subsidiary of Charter Schools USA, a South Florida charter chain, because its oversight board would not be local.

Hillsborough County officials recently raised similar leadership concerns with their Charter Schools USA schools, after sparring with the group over a proposal to open a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base.

Told the application met state law, the Pasco board relented. It then spent more than a year negotiating a contract with the group, including a failed mediation and an appeal to the state.

Once approved, the school requested an extra year to open, pushing back its debut from 2013 to 2014. That day never arrived.

Board member Allen Altman, who voted against the charter agreement, said he wasn't disappointed with the outcome.

"That particular charter company in my investigations had a history of issues," he said. "I would have to have some assurances that those issues have been dealt with" before considering a second attempt to bring a school to the county.

The Pepin Academies informed the school district that it would change its address from a planned Shady Hills subdivision, where the builder had plans to develop property for the school, to leased property in a shopping center at Little Road and Fox Hollow Drive in New Port Richey.

The board granted Pepin a 15-year contract with the understanding that the charter school needed to show lenders its viability in order to win construction loans. But the board amended the contract to give Pepin three years to prove it was moving to own its site, rather than leasing. Otherwise, the school's contract would shrink to five years.

Scowcroft said Pepin officials, who could not be reached for comment, indicated they would move into a new permanent facility in year three. Board chairwoman Alison Crumbley said she would withhold judgment until she could see the charter school's plans in writing.

District officials were less surprised by the news that Florida Virtual Academy had just 57 students, less than half its projection for this year. That low figure means the charter school will not get nearly the amount of funding it had budgeted, which could hinder its viability.

"I was stunned at their enrollment projections, when students had access to Pasco eSchool and Florida Virtual," Altman said.

He raised doubts that the school could succeed financially with so few students.

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