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District makes charter school process tougher

It's getting tougher to open a charter school in Pasco County, largely because of recent troubles encountered by two of the independent public schools.

District administrators are demanding more information from charter hopefuls on things like who will help run the schools, how they will transport students and how their programs will be innovative or unique.

The tougher questions have had an immediate result: two local groups have withdrawn their applications to open charters next school year. The groups need more time to put together a more comprehensive plan, school officials said.

In July, cost overruns forced organizers to pull the plug on their proposed school for the performing arts, called Infinity. The decision left parents of more than 200 students scrambling to find new schools for their children just weeks before the academic year began.

Then last month, the Times reported on a suspected ring of fraud and embezzlement at Deerwood Academy charter school in Port Richey. Deerwood cannot account for how it spent nearly $96,000 of taxpayer's money. Seven school employees were fired or quit for their suspected roles in the scandal.

Those two cases have school officials doubly cautious about who gets a charter.

"We're just trying to make sure that we don't get another Infinity or Deerwood situation," said Dick Tauber, the district's point on charters. "We've learned the hard way that there are things you have to have in place (before the schools open)."

Charter schools are public schools and they receive tax dollars to operate. They're run by community groups or businesses via contracts with the School Board. Five charters are up and running in Pasco. Deerwood remains open, but the district is running the school until the investigation into its finances is over.

District officials acknowledge that they've learned much about charters since they allowed the first one to open in 2000. Detailed plans for things like special education, transportation and budgeting weren't required of the county's first charter, but are now.

Superintendent John Long has said that he wasn't sure on what grounds the board could deny a charter proposal. Florida is so charter-friendly, he has said, that the denials would likely be overturned by the Cabinet, to which organizers could appeal if they were denied.

"I think the School Board has gotten wiser," Long said. "People now really have to have their house in order, particularly on the financial side."

Deborah Covic is one of the first to feel the burden of the stricter requirements. Last month she asked the School Board for permission to open Clearview Prep, a 180-student high school for college-bound students. Covic withdrew her application this month after district administrators began poking holes in her proposal.

Covic is friends with Suzanne Chase, who opened Pasco's first charter, Dayspring Academy. Covic said Chase reviewed her application and commented that it is much more thorough than the one she submitted to the School Board three years ago.

The board is "extremely cautious right now, and rightfully so," Covic said. "They're requiring a lot more details."

Covic said she doesn't believe her charter school idea is dead. She withdrew her application because she needs time to regroup and do more planning. She said she expects to apply again next year. "We put in too much hard work for it to be dead," she said. "It's not an easy process, but it's not insurmountable."

_ Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached at 800-333-7505, ext. 6241, or at 869-6241. His e-mail address is kfischersptimes.com.

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