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School district gets charter status

Hillsborough will have greater freedom in reducing class sizes and hiring teachers but must improve student scores.

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. Volusia, the first Florida county to become a charter district, had held the distinction until Tuesday's vote.

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

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.

In an interview after the vote in Tallahassee, Lennard said he was particularly excited about the district's new flexibility in hiring qualified teachers who lack certification, particularly those who have expertise in an area but lack the state's official imprimatur to teach.

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 just last week, it still had 170 teaching spots to fill.

In its scramble to fill posts, the district assigned more than 11 percent of its newly hired teachers to teach subjects they are not certified to teach.

Under the charter district contract, the district will have greater freedom to make such "out of field" assignments.

Lennard said he recently fielded a call from a teacher who taught in Hawaii for 20 years and now lives in Florida. When she offered her help in the schools a few days before the school year began, he said, the district couldn't accept the offer because she didn't have a Florida teaching certificate.

But now, he said, such an offer will be welcome and acceptable.

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. 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 become a charter district in July.

Beyond Florida, there are only five charter districts, four in California and one in Georgia, according to the Center for Education Reform, which advocates alternatives to traditional public education.

In contrast, charter schools have blossomed at a far faster clip. There are an estimated 2,000 charter schools in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

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.

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

_ Sarah Schweitzer covers education and can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or schweitzersptimes.com.

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