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School district gains charter status

Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet gave approval Tuesday to the transformation of Hillsborough County into a charter district, a move that frees the school district from more than a dozen state rules and regulations.

The Hillsborough School Board followed suit Tuesday night, approving the proposal with unanimous consent.

"We are going to make history with this," said School Board Chairman Carolyn Bricklemyer.

Hillsborough now ranks as the largest charter district in the country, second only to Volusia County, the first Florida county to become a charter district.

"We know this School Board and the state Board of Education are moving into uncharted territory, but we have an opportunity to forge a new partnership, Superintendent Earl Lennard told Bush and the Cabinet.

As a charter district, Hillsborough will have greater freedom in reducing kindergarten and first-grade class sizes, determining teacher placement, developing remediation programs for students who have fallen behind, determining class credits, choosing instructional materials and spending state money.

In return, the district has vowed to improve reading and SAT scores, ensure that the district has 10 percent more qualified applicants for vacancies in every academic category, increase graduation and attendance rates and improve the public's view of the district, among other promises.

Hillsborough, like school districts across the country, is struggling to fill vacant teacher spots in the midst of a growing teacher shortage. Three weeks before school began this year, the district was short nearly 400 teachers and last week still had 170 teaching spots to fill.

Charter districts, which were approved by the Legislature last year, are similar in concept to charter schools. A charter school operates free of a school district's rules and regulations, while a charter district enjoys freedom from state rules and regulations in return for a promise that student performance will improve.

Volusia County, a 66-school system on Central Florida's east coast, became the first county in Florida to receive charter district status in July.

In Hillsborough, the charter district contract will take effect Oct. 1 and run through June 30, 2003.

The contract approved in Tallahassee is a somewhat scaled-back version of an initial contract floated by district officials in August.

Distric officials said several requests for waivers from regulations were discarded in discussions with the state, largely for technical reasons.