Thursday, November 23, 2017
Education

Pinellas charter recommended for approval despite concerns

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A proposed online charter school that would hire a Virginia firm under investigation for using uncertified teachers is up for approval today before the Pinellas County School Board.

District staff gave a stamp of approval to Florida Virtual Academy at Pinellas County. Yet they recommended rejecting two other charters.

Some board members on Monday were asking why.

"It seemed like this had as much or more reasons to deny" as the other two proposals, board member Linda Lerner said of the application.

Chief among the staff's concerns is that the school would offer classes through Virginia-based K12 Inc., which is under investigation by the Florida Department of Education for allegedly using uncertified teachers in some of its operations.

Dot Clark, the district's coordinator of partnership schools, said staffers were "gravely concerned" about the virtual provider. But she concluded that the charter still met state requirements to open.

School boards can't reject a charter if it meets basic criteria set by the state. The two other charter applicants, however, had obvious problems.

Pinellas Charter School's application was based on past requirements, not current ones.

Excel Charter School Pinellas didn't clearly indicate how much time students would spend in class. It seemed to combine two different sets of educational standards, referring repeatedly in its application to the "Next Generation Sunshine State Common Core Standards," Clark wrote.

Charter schools are run privately but funded with taxpayer money. Boards can terminate an existing charter due to a poor academic record or financial mismanagement.

Aside from the state investigation, Clark noted other trouble spots in the application for Florida Virtual Academy at Pinellas County.

She wrote that the proposed school also has an out-of-town governing board that runs multiple charters statewide, which could make it less responsive to needs in Pinellas County. She said its contact person was "sluggish" in responding to the district. Some details about the operation, such as how it would validate enrollment, weren't provided.

Board members Carol Cook and Terry Krassner said they, too, had concerns.

"As I read through (the application), I just kind of said, 'Can you tell me in a paragraph or two why are you recommending it?' Because I don't see it," Cook said.

Krassner said she wanted to postpone considering the application until the investigation had concluded. She said district staff told her that wasn't an option.

Clark, who reviews the district's charter applications, couldn't be reached Monday for comment on the applications.

Paul Hull, chairman of Southwest Florida Virtual Charter School Board, said he was pleased the application has been recommended for approval. The group applied last year to open online schools in five counties, but Hull said the group still considers itself local.

If approved, Florida Virtual Academy at Pinellas County would have a three-member governing board with parents from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, he said.

He also said the governing board had been assured by K12 Inc. that it doesn't use uncertified teachers.

"We're more than confident that K12 can do the job for us," Hull said.

Applications from charters using K12 have come under scrutiny in other counties.

School boards, including those in Pasco and Marion counties, recently rejected K12 applications because of concerns about the allegations.

The Palm Beach County School Board denied the application only to have its decision overturned in July by the state Board of Education.

The Pinellas County School Board will consider the charter applications during its 10:30 a.m. meeting today at district headquarters in Largo.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected], (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

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