Hernando County charter school could be shut down if it doesn't hire a school resource deputy by Friday. Its leaders say they'll comply.

Hernando County Sheriff’s deputy Cory Zarcone, 28, talks to Aleigha Dziedzic, 5, right, during breakfast time in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School.   Times (2018)
Hernando County Sheriff’s deputy Cory Zarcone, 28, talks to Aleigha Dziedzic, 5, right, during breakfast time in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School. Times (2018)
Published March 13, 2019

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BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School District could force one of the county's two charter schools to close at the end of this week if the school doesn't hire a full-time school resource deputy — an action that the school's directors said they intend to take before time runs out.

Gulf Coast Academy has yet to sign a contract with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office to employ one of its deputies, which leaves it out of compliance with state school safety law passed in February 2018. Charter schools operate independently under contract with the school district, so while the schools have to hire deputies themselves, the whole district is noncompliant with state law.

Next month, Superintendent John Stratton likely will appear before the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said. Last month, the Florida Supreme Court agreed to impanel a grand jury to investigate districts' failings in following school safety law.

That led to a unanimous vote Tuesday night in which the School Board gave Stratton its approval to terminate Gulf Coast's charter. The board agreed to let the school stay open Wednesday and Thursday as long as it has a uniformed officer on campus those days. It must sign a long-term contract with the Sheriff's Office by noon Friday, which is a day off for students.

If the school doesn't meet those conditions, he will terminate its charter.

"None of us want to be in this position," Stratton said. "But we are. In my opinion, we have to take action, and we have to take action swiftly."

School officials said they plan to resolve the situation before noon Friday.

"We'll have a contract with the Sheriff's Office," said Joseph Gatti, a co-founder and co-director of Gulf Coast Academy. "It's our intention, and it always has been, to follow the law to the letter."

The county's other charter school, Brooksville Engineering, Science and Technology Academy, will face the same conditions, but it wasn't the focus of the conversation around the vote. It recently signed a contract and sent it back to the Sheriff's Office, where it was being finalized earlier this week, district officials said.

The School Board had to decide how much time to give the school to hire a deputy. In many charter-termination scenarios, Alfonso said, the district would give a school 90 days notice, with time built in for an appeal process. But a clause in the school's contract allows for immediate termination if student health, safety or welfare is in jeopardy.

Board members were frustrated that the school was still out of compliance more than a year after the law passed, they said, and they agreed the problem needed an immediate fix.

"I don't know why we're here," said the board's non-voting student representative, Ryan Bradley. "Today is March 2019. This was passed Feb. 2018. I feel strongly that our students' safety has been jeopardized since that point ... You never know what could happen in five minutes."

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Contact Jack Evans at Follow @JackHEvans.