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Hillsborough broke law, must keep four charter schools open, state leaders say

The School Board set an emergency meeting for Tuesday.
Zoe Sanchez, 9, a student at SouthShore Charter Academy School, makes remarks on behalf of her school during a meeting Wednesday of Florida's State Board of Education, held at St. Petersburg College Seminole Campus. “I cannot say enough how much I love my school,” she told board members.
Zoe Sanchez, 9, a student at SouthShore Charter Academy School, makes remarks on behalf of her school during a meeting Wednesday of Florida's State Board of Education, held at St. Petersburg College Seminole Campus. “I cannot say enough how much I love my school,” she told board members. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jul. 14
Updated Jul. 14

Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran held firm Wednesday to his position that the Hillsborough County School Board broke state law when it moved last month to close four charter schools, affecting more than 2,000 students.

And the State Board of Education, meeting in Seminole, backed him up.

The Hillsborough board will now meet in an emergency session Tuesday and might reconsider the four votes it took on June 15 against renewing the schools’ charters.

The four schools — Woodmont and SouthShore, both managed by Charter Schools USA, along with Pivot and Kids Community College High School — have filed appeals with the state, attorneys for the school district said.

Charter schools are funded by the state but managed independently of local districts. In Hillsborough, they attract some 30,000 students, bringing in about $250 million every year that would otherwise go to the school district.

Should the nonrenewal decisions stand, Corcoran has put the district on notice that he can invoke the state’s oversight and enforcement authority. In that process, Hillsborough faces sanctions that could include a dramatic loss of funding in a system already stretched thin by budget cuts.

Until Wednesday, the dispute about the four schools had played out between the district and Corcoran.

The meeting, packed with speakers on both sides of the issue, gave State Board members a chance to weigh in.

Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran listens Wednesday during at State Board of Education meeting, where he expressed exasperation with Hillsborough County school officials.
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran listens Wednesday during at State Board of Education meeting, where he expressed exasperation with Hillsborough County school officials. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

During an earlier discussion about Hillsborough’s budget problems, State Board member Tom Grady asked Hillsborough board chair Lynn Gray if the board was prepared to spend scarce funds on the legal cost of defending the charter school closings.

Gray said she could not answer, at the direction of attorneys. She then argued that charter schools are not held to the same regulatory standards as district-run schools — a point Corcoran later disputed — and said that without the rapid proliferation of charter schools, Hillsborough’s financial problems would be far less severe.

Grady called that answer “totally nonresponsive.”

State Board member Ben Gibson asked Hillsborough superintendent Addison Davis if he had anticipated the School Board’s actions when he recommended renewing all four contracts.

“Every agenda item I bring to the board, I anticipate it passing,” Davis answered.

At one point, Davis tried to get Corcoran to clarify the consequences the district will face if it does not allow the schools to remain open. A letter Corcoran sent in June listed numerous possibilities, most involving the withholding of state and federal funding.

Much of the large crowd that turned out for Wednesday's State Board of Education meeting in Seminole consisted of parents, teachers and other supporters of four Hillsborough County charter schools.
Much of the large crowd that turned out for Wednesday's State Board of Education meeting in Seminole consisted of parents, teachers and other supporters of four Hillsborough County charter schools. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“The consequences are just, simply, follow the law.” Corcoran said, somewhat exasperated. “The simplest thing to do is, follow the law.”

Corcoran mused later that “we’ve never gotten to this point because, normally, elected officials follow the law.... This loyalty or bias toward a system and not students is reprehensible. You cannot have those who raise their right hand and swear to uphold the law breaking the law.”

Corcoran contends that Hillsborough was legally obligated to notify the four schools of the nonrenewal decisions at least 90 days before the charter contracts expired on June 30. Instead, word came 15 days before the expiration date.

Hillsborough’s attorneys, however, say Corcoran misinterpreted the law. They say he based the 90-day rule on a sample charter contract that was attached to the Florida Administrative Code, and did not take effect until after the four schools had been launched.

Attorneys for the school district want that debate to be resolved in the appeals process, with the schools remaining open until a decision is reached. Corcoran’s position is that Hillsborough’s action was so disruptive to the students and their families, it should be undone before any more harm occurs.

When Hillsborough School Board Attorney Jim Porter said Corcoran had not given the district due process about Wednesday’s board action, Corcoran called that statement “offensive” and told Porter, “You’ve had more due process than any person in your situation deserves.”

Hillsborough School Board member Jessica Vaughn, meanwhile, wants Davis to take responsibility for not bringing the charter renewals to the board early enough. “This is Addison’s responsibility,” she said after the meeting. “He put us in this position.”

Davis explained that, historically, the board has always reviewed charter proposals in May and June so they will not disrupt student learning. As for the 90-day legal issue, he said, “we hope to resolve this matter with the state amicably.”

Speakers lined up in Seminole to argue both sides of the question. Staff and families from the charter schools told the State Board that, without these independent schools, children would be subject to inferior instruction and bullying.

“I cannot say enough how much I love my school,” said Zoe Sanchez, a rising fourth-grader at SouthShore in Riverview. “The teachers care about me, they help me, and they even make me laugh.”

Supporters of the Hillsborough board’s action included civics teacher Scott Hottenstein. He and others said the state is trying to usurp local control. “Do not deprive 220,000 students of funding to support 2,000,″ he urged the State Board.

Others said that charter schools attract a population that is statistically more affluent and that, because of gaps in their services to students with disabilities, they violate federal civil rights laws.

The School Board’s action of June 15, which is unprecedented, happened in a year when Hillsborough also came close to financial insolvency. At one point, Davis said in a recap of the year’s events, the district expected to end the year with a negative $23 million reserve.

Staffing and other spending cuts enabled the district to reverse that trend. Using federal COVID-19 relief dollars, they were able to end the year with the 3 percent reserve level required by law.

Many attendees at Wednesday's meeting of the State Board of Education came in support of being allowed to choose charter schools.
Many attendees at Wednesday's meeting of the State Board of Education came in support of being allowed to choose charter schools. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

State leaders, however, are not swayed by the argument that charter schools deplete the districts of funding. They say Hillsborough has a poor record where spending is concerned, and several were offended at the idea that the district would cure its budget shortfall by denying families the right to use charters.

“Their financial crisis has been going on over 10-plus years,” said State Board member Joe York.

“Then we find out that the School Board that has been in charge and led to that crisis is now going after charter schools. It just really was a great case of psychological projection. ‘We’re not doing our job so look over here. And we’re going to attack (charter schools) for the very thing that we’re failing to do ourselves.’”

York said “it was appalling that they could even go forward with what they were trying to do, given their house and the mess that existed there.”

Gibson summed the discussion up similarly. “We stood up for some charter schools,” he said. “It was mentioned multiple times that charter schools are public schools. They are not something less. And they are on equal footing. We also stood up for the rule of law.”