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Five Hillsborough charter schools get long-term contracts

Hillsborough County School Board member Lynn Gray is taking a public stand against charter schools. She's not getting much traction on the board or in the district.  [Times files]
Hillsborough County School Board member Lynn Gray is taking a public stand against charter schools. She's not getting much traction on the board or in the district. [Times files]
Published Jun. 5, 2018

TAMPA — Over the objections of a lone Hillsborough County School Board member, five charter schools will get contract extensions that could keep their doors open for a decade or longer.

Advantage Academy of Hillsborough and Advantage County Middle School, two Plant City schools that are merging, received a 10-year renewal at the School Board meeting on Tuesday. Combined, they have a projected enrollment of 573 students, is in Plant City.

Riverview-based Bell Creek Academy, with 690 students; and Bell Creek Academy High School, with 565 schools, qualify as high performing charter schools and because of that will get 15-year extensions.

The same was decided for Valrico Lake Advantage Academy, with 964 students; and Hillsborough Academy of Math and Science, in Town 'N Country, with 933 students.

District officials estimate the five schools will get $25 million in state funding that otherwise would go to district schools.

What's more, argued board member Lynn Gray, who opposed the extensions, the schools have fewer minority students than those around them.

Gray, who had researched the schools ahead of time, also raised questions about their finances and academic records.

At last count, roughly one in 10 Hillsborough public students were in charter schools, which get state funding but are operated independently of the government district.

One of the board's newer members, Gray has been speaking out recently against corporate-run charter schools, although she cut the ribbon on Academica's Slam Academy in Citrus Park. In that situation, Gray later said she was impressed by the school's athletics theme.

Since then, however, she has argued increasingly that the district should follow others, such as Palm Beach, Marion and Alachua County, and reject charter projects even at the risk of losing out in a costly state appeal.

"We should be fighting a little harder and smarter," she said.

Hillsborough leaders and Gray's colleagues on the board have been reluctant to take such a position.

One by one, her colleagues reminded her Tuesday that state law is very specific in when a district can close, reject or refuse to renew the contract of a charter school.

"Everything we have brought you today is supported by statute," Superintendent Jeff Eakins told her.

He also reminded her that, regardless of the length of the contract, the district exercises some oversight and can terminate a contract early if it has grounds to do so.

What's more, member Cindy Stuart said, Hillsborough has 50 schools that are now considered "Achievement" schools because of state-ordered improvement plans. "We have to get our own house in order," she said.

In the end, the board approved the five renewals by a vote of 6-1, with only Gray dissenting.

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Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol


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