Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran issued a strong response Wednesday to the Hillsborough County School Board’s decision last week to deny contract renewals to four charter schools.
In a pointed letter to school district officials, he urged them to reverse their decision or explain the legal reasons for their denials. He said it appeared they had violated state law and threatened to withhold state funding from the district. He set a deadline of Tuesday for the district to respond.
Corcoran, a proponent of school choice options that include publicly funded but independently managed charter schools, said the board moved without giving the advance warning state law allows before a decision to shutter an existing school.
The letter came eight days after the board, in an unprecedented series of votes, rejected staff recommendations to open two new charter schools and renew contracts for four more. Up for possible closure are the Kids Community College High, Pivot, SouthShore and Woodmont charter schools. The four enrolled more than 2,200 students in the last school year. The two largest, Woodmont and SouthShore, are managed by the for-profit Charter Schools USA.
Board members cited a variety of reasons for voting to withhold renewal of the contracts. They found flaws in services to gifted and learning disabled students at SouthShore and Woodmont. At Pivot and KCC High School, they were concerned about financial stability and academic performance.
A fifth school, Sunlake Academy of Math and Science, is being offered a five-year contract instead of the 10 years it had requested.
The board also rejected proposals from Mater Academy, a nonprofit group affiliated with the for-profit Academica, to open two new schools that ultimately would serve 1,300 students.
The district’s charter school staff and attorneys are in the process of preparing letters to the existing schools. Those letters begin a 90-day review period during which the schools can respond while remaining open for instruction.
But while the district says it is following the appropriate timetable under state law, Corcoran disagrees.
In his letter he quoted a section of the Florida Administrative Code that says a decision to renew or not renew should happen “no later than 90 days prior to the end of the charter term.” As contracts for the four schools expire on June 30, Corcoran is arguing that the district waited too long.
Corcoran also contends that the schools serve economically disadvantaged students, a statement that, according to board chair Lynn Gray, is not entirely accurate. Statistics provided by the district’s charter school office show that in the last school year, 32 percent of SouthShore’s students were economically disadvantaged. The district’s poverty rate, based on enrollment in the free lunch program, is nearly double that.
The district issued this brief statement Wednesday concerning Corcoran’s letter: “Staff and legal counsel are reviewing the content and will develop a response with the board next week.”
Jim Porter, the School Board’s attorney, said district leaders will draft the appropriate letters to the schools and to Corcoran, getting input from the board when it meets as scheduled on Tuesday.
Corcoran’s letter included a demand for documentation, by 5 p.m. Tuesday of “every factual and legal justification” to support the board’s decisions against renewing the schools’ contracts.
He wrote that he will review the district response and then determine if he has legal grounds to take action under enforcement authority from the State Board of Education.
Such an action, he wrote, might lead to “withholding state funds, discretionary grant funds, discretionary lottery funds or any other funds specified as eligible for this purpose until such time as the School Board of Hillsborough County comes into compliance with Florida law.”
Gray responded, saying of Corcoran: “I think he’s overstepping tremendously. He’s concerned with 2,000 kids. If he carries out withholding grant funds, who he‘s really going to hurt is possibly 220,000 students.”
This is not the first time in recent months that Corcoran has come down hard on the Hillsborough district.
In April, the board began a corrective action process based on concerns some members had about superintendent Addison Davis. With mounting speculation about efforts to fire Davis, Corcoran issued an equally harsh letter, demanding that the district prepare a plan to address its longstanding financial difficulties, and threatening to initiate a financial takeover if they did not comply.
“At this point, I feel like there needs to be some accountability to his abuse of power,” board member Jessica Vaughn said Wednesday. “It feels like an imbalance of power when the commissioner of education writes us a letter because he doesn’t like the votes that we took, and threatens to withhold funds that statutorily we are we are supposed to get.”