LAND O'LAKES — With great reluctance, the Pasco County School Board on Tuesday rejected charter school applications from two community groups.
The Center for Independence had sought to open a school to serve students ages 18-22 with special needs. Freedom Academy had proposed a science and math-focused elementary school for the Zephyrhills area.
Board members said they were encouraged that the local applicants had looked to open charter schools that would serve community needs.
"We've made it abundantly clear to both of the charter schools that we value the attempt that you've made," chairwoman Joanne Hurley said.
They were dismayed, however, that the applications had deficits that essentially required the board to deny the charters.
"It is extremely difficult to sit here and feel constrained by state statute and mandates," board vice chairman Allen Altman said.
He called for the district to work more closely with applicants in the future to ensure that they fully understand problems with their proposals ahead of time. Staff should also communicate that information to the board before the proposals come up for a vote, Altman said.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino and her staff said they offered multiple opportunities for applicants to get feedback on their applications.
However, they added, state rules are strict and clear about how a charter school proposal must look, and what information it must provide.
Staff said both the Center for Independence and Freedom Academy fell short in key areas.
The center's problems stemmed from curriculum shortcomings for students still pursuing special diplomas, as well as missing portions of the required application form. The academy's woes were tied to its reliance on funding it did not yet have.
"We have no doubt these are really wonderful people," district charter schools supervisor Nancy Scowcroft told the School Board. "It was a really difficult decision the committee had to make to recommend denial."
Center for Independence CEO Emile Laurino made an impassioned plea for the board to consider his group's proposal. He spoke about the center's longstanding presence helping children with special needs in the community, and its experts' and parents' dedication.
It simply sought to build upon existing programs to better help disabled young adults make it in the real world, he said. The charter school would be for students who have disabilities that qualify them for public education beyond traditional high school age.
"At this age and stage of life with this population, we need to put all of the focus on life skills … and not on the next generation sunshine state standards," Laurino said, dismissing staff's concerns over curriculum.
"The important thing is what goes on in life. What can be done to make them active members of our community?" he continued. "We would like to start a little earlier, not have the individuals sit at home and watch TV and waste away."
But the board could not ignore its own educational requirements, as well as state standards, Fiorentino and her team explained. Board members said their hands were tied.
"Please please keep working on this," board member Cynthia Armstrong said. "This is the type of charter school I like to see. It is meeting a need of the community."
They had much the same advice for Freedom Academy, whose lead applicant Mark Jordan acknowledged its application defects.
"We hope to be back next year with a perfect application," Jordan said.
After the vote, which board member Steve Luikart said caused "heartache," the board talked about how it might smooth the process for future years. After tossing around some ideas, members asked Fiorentino to explore options and bring back some recommendations.
The conversation bothered Lynne Webb, United School Employees of Pasco president.
The governor and Legislature already are making it easier for charter schools to open while also taking resources away from districts, she told the board.
"When I look at how many students we have in our district … I am very concerned that this is taking a disproportionate amount of resources. If I wanted to start a charter school ... I would make sure my application was correct," Webb said, suggesting that added "handholding" would be inappropriate.
Hurley said she heard the message and would keep it in mind as the board moves forward. The board still has seven more charter applications to consider this year.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.
In other business Tuesday, the Pasco School Board:
• Renewed its contract with attorney Dennis Alfonso for another year.
• Learned that the state Department of Education has approved its second phase of teacher evaluations. Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, said the union is close to contractual agreement with the district regarding the new evaluation model.
• Approved schools' annual improvement plans, despite board member Alison Crumbley's concerns that she had not had enough time to review them all.
• Withdrew the termination of Odessa Elementary assistant plant manager Joe Primavera, accused of lying about hours worked, because he asked for a hearing before the board.