The Hillsborough County School Board made the correct decision Tuesday in denying an application for a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base. Though the school would have been convenient for many military families and could have met some unique needs, the governing structure was muddy and it was unclear what role a local advisory group would have had in the operation. The sponsors could better use their time in the coming year by improving the application rather than by appealing the School Board's decision.
The applicant, the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, proposed building a K-8 school on the grounds of MacDill. Supporters said the school would meet the needs of MacDill families who cannot get their children into Tinker Elementary, the on-base public school run by the school district. The charter would have added 875 elementary and middle school slots to augment the roughly 550 students attending Tinker. It also would have provided MacDill with a middle school on the base, making it convenient for parents on duty there.
Yet the board was right to follow the staff's recommendation to reject the plan, because the sponsors were inconsistent about the leadership structure. In its application, the foundation said a local governing council of base leaders, parents and others would have "direct oversight" of the school, including "authority to oversee the school's finances" with the foundation providing "broader strategic direction." But the application blurred the lines of authority. In recent days, sponsors made matters worse by insisting the local council was — contrary to the application — only advisory in nature.
To hold any charter accountable, the school district needs to know who is in charge and the lines of authority. This lack of focus doesn't serve either side at the start of what would be a long-term relationship. Board members sent the right message by underscoring their concerns while also acknowledging that a charter might serve the unique needs of MacDill parents, who are often frequently rotated in and out of assignments, leaving them without the community support they could find more easily on base. The concept for a charter school at MacDill makes sense, but this proposal falls short.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia should follow through on her offer to establish a task force to examine options for MacDill. The district clearly is sensitive to the needs of military families. Tinker has been an A-rated school for 12 of the last 13 years, so it's obvious the district is doing something right on the base. Rather than appeal the district's decision to the state, the charter sponsors should work with Elia on a collaborative approach, or improve their application and bring it back next year. There is no need for this issue to become divisive. Better to direct those energies toward better serving MacDill families as soon as possible.