Thursday, December 14, 2017
Education

Pinellas School Board narrowly approves online charter school

LARGO — The Pinellas County School Board found a lot to dislike Tuesday about a proposed online charter school.

Florida Virtual Academy at Pinellas County would be run by a national company, K12 Inc., which is under investigation over allegedly hiring uncertified teachers. In the application, the local governing board, which has oversight of the school, appeared to give its power to K12.

The curriculum plan was "not appropriate for students" because it didn't address the state's transition to new educational standards, according to district staff.

Despite all that, the board voted 4-3 to approve the charter's application, moving the school a step closer to opening. Board members Linda Lerner, Robin Wikle and Janet Clark voted against it.

The reason a majority voted yes? Control.

Most board members agreed that they would rather approve the application than risk losing their power over the school if Florida Virtual Academy appealed to the state, which in the past has approved charters that school districts have rejected.

District staff members now will hammer out a charter agreement with the school. If that agreement is approved by the board, then the school can open.

"We need to be part of the conversation," said board member Carol Cook.

According to its application, the online charter would eventually serve students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It would enroll about 500 students by its fifth year of operation.

Charter schools are privately run but funded with taxpayer money. Often a governing board will be responsible for oversight of the school, but will hire a management company to run day-to-day operations of the school.

Lerner urged the board to vote down the application. She said she believes in good charter schools but had "substantial concerns" in this case.

She said nearly all of the functions of running the school would go to K12 and the governing board appeared to have little ability to hire a new company if it wanted. She said the agreement had "no teeth in it."

"Why didn't they just apply?" she said of K12.

Wikle said she didn't think staff members should spend their time trying to improve a charter school's application.

"It doesn't make any sense," she said.

Clark said the online school doesn't fill a need in the community. The school district and the state already operate virtual schools, both of which are available to students in Pinellas.

But the threat of losing on appeal is real, said Dot Clark, the district's coordinator of partnership schools. Last year, proposed charters in other Florida counties using K12 appealed and won five times, she said.

Clark said two other charters, which were recommended for rejection Tuesday, were different cases since both applications had erroneous information. Board members voted unanimously to reject both.

Superintendent Mike Grego told board members that district staffers wouldn't bring back a charter agreement with Florida Virtual Academy at Pinellas County until all of their concerns had been addressed.

"As far as us as a district compromising, there would be no compromise," he said.

Paul Hull, chairman of Southwest Florida Virtual Charter School Board, which would be the governing board for the online school, said Tuesday that he was "gratified" by the board's decision and looks forward to working with the district.

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

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