Saturday, April 21, 2018
Opinion

Tussle over MacDill Air Force Base charter school hurts children

Just so there is no misunderstanding, let us all agree that we love the children. Indeed, the children are the cat's meow and our future, too. And when it comes to educating the little dickenses, well, we need to move mountains for them. Because we just love those cute-as-cute-can-be kiddos to pieces.

So it might come as something of a surprise that when a bunch of honchos, led by Col. Scott DeThomas, launched a campaign to build a charter school on MacDill Air Force Base the Hillsborough County School Board and superintendent MaryEllen Elia didn't offer a snappy salute and start breaking ground with their bare hands.

After all, this is MacDill, one of the most throbbing economic engines in the region. And of course since the students would be the children of military personnel, why shouldn't the base get its own charter school in recognition of the sacrifices endured by our men and women in uniform? Makes sense.

Except it didn't.

Days ago, the School Board voted unanimously to go along with Elia's recommendation to deny the MacDill charter application. And before you get all lathered up and accuse the board and superintendent of being antimilitary, anti-American and antichildren, it might be worth noting that the decision to deep-six the charter was probably the right thing to do.

For months now the pro-charter proponents have argued for an expansion of the educational options at MacDill. The current on-base Tinker Elementary School, which is a well-regarded and well-run A-rated school, is only a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade institution. And so the reasoning went that the base needed to expand with a sixth-through-eighth-grade charter school.

Charter schools are privately run enterprises sanctioned by the School Board. And therein lies the problem. In the case of the MacDill proposed charter, the governing structure would be like a bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine with the Florida Charter Education Foundation holding the charter and the for-profit Charter Schools USA (which has a mixed-grade rating history in Hillsborough County) actually running the school, but also reporting to an advisory council made up of local figures and base personnel. The Medellin drug cartel had a more clearly defined organizational chart.

Ultimately, this wasn't so much an issue over providing a quality education to children. This was a standoff over who would exert control over a school. The pro-charter camp? Or Elia?

Indeed, Elia's offer to upgrade nearby Monroe Middle School to address MacDill's concerns was tepidly received.

In the end, it would seem that to enhance MacDill's educational opportunities, it would be a simple enough matter to merely expand the existing Tinker campus to accommodate sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students.

Elia has bemoaned a lack of available funding to expand Tinker. But if Elia could find the money to improve Monroe, surely there must be a few dollars lying around to build out Tinker. And if there was money to be had to build a brand new charter, why can't some of those dollars be applied to making an A-rated school already demonstrating it is doing a good job an even bigger and better school?

Or put another way, when powerful, influential people in this community want to get something done, there is always a way to scrounge up the money, especially for those special children we all love so very, very much.

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