Faced with the threat of losing nearly $1 billion in government funding, the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday reversed a series of votes it took last month and allowed four charter schools to remain open without interruption.
The 6-1 vote affects more than 2,000 student at Pivot, SouthShore, Woodmont and Kid’s Community College Preparatory High charter schools. Board member Jessica Vaughn dissented because she wanted to vote on the four schools individually. She also wanted the motion to include increased oversight at the four publicly funded, yet independently managed schools.
Instead, the board received assurances from school superintendent Addison Davis that the stepped up supervision will happen.
Vaughn and others also took the opportunity to speak out against Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran and the State Board of Education. Corcoran has repeatedly accused them of breaking Florida law, and the State Board backed up his assertion when it met on Wednesday in Seminole.
“We’re not criminals,” said Board Chair Lynn Gray, who is asking for written affirmation to protect the board members’ reputations.
Board member Nadia Combs said she was “astounded” by a lack of civility state leaders showed Hillsborough during the Seminole gathering.
Vaughn called for future board discussions to address what some see as overreach by Corcoran’s office. “I see a pattern developing where the state threatens to withhold funding every time we make a decision they don’t like,” she said.
Corcoran’s response to the June 15 votes marks the third time in a year that he has responded forcefully to Hillsborough board actions. The first came during the passage last year of a post COVID-19 reopening plan that, at Corcoran’s insistence, had to happen before the end of August. Hillsborough wanted to delay the entrance of in-person students until the third week of September.
The second was in April, when board members took steps to put Davis on a professional improvement plan. Less than 24 hours before a meeting to discuss the superintendent’s future, which might have included a call for his resignation, Corcoran issued a stern letter about the district’s financial condition and demanded a fiscal recovery plan.
This time, Corcoran said that if Hillsborough did not renew the four charter school contracts, he would invoke the state’s emergency authority, a process that could hold up $950 million in funding. As Hillsborough is being monitored closely to ensure its main reserve fund does not drop below 2 percent of revenues, that loss would likely cause the district to fail that test. Under that scenario, the state could place them in financial receivership.
With the charter sector gaining ground year over year, board members are under pressure to protect the integrity of district-run schools and the funding that follows students when they leave. That funding adds up to roughly $250 million a year to educate the more than 30,000 students now in charters. While some in district leadership have called for staff reductions to adjust, those cuts have also incurred backlash from parents and employee groups.
Reasons for the June 15 nonrenewal votes varied from school to school. Board members said they were concerned largely about finances at Pivot and Kid’s Community College Preparatory High, known as KCC Prep. At SouthShore and Woodmont, they found numerous examples in district reports of recordkeeping problems and gaps in service to gifted and learning disabled students.
Leaders of SouthShore and Woodmont, both managed by the for-profit Charter Schools USA, said at the time that the allegations were false. Lawyers told the state they were prepared to dispute “each and every reason for nonrenewal cited.”
On Tuesday, the schools were no less adamant. “Clearly there was never a single material reason to even consider not renewing our charters as demonstrated by the board’s vote today,“ said Valera Cole, who chairs the schools’ governing board.
Tuesday’s action means those questions will not be decided in any court.
Nor will there be a ruling on whether Hillsborough broke state law, as Corcoran claimed. His reasoning was that if a district decides not to renew a charter school contract, it must notify the school at least 90 days before the contract expires. For the four Hillsborough schools, that would have been April 1.
Hillsborough’s attorneys, however, were prepared to argue that the 90-day rule did not take effect until December of 2019, which is well after the four schools opened. “Merely having the State Board of Education say we violated the law does not make it so,” said School Board attorney Jim Porter.
Critics of charter schools say they attract students who are relatively privileged. Statistics gathered by the district and state support that assertion. Based on participation in the federal free lunch program, all of the schools except Woodmont showed poverty rates last year between 29 and 37 percent. The district, by comparison, had 58 percent of students receiving free lunch.
But while the schools serve more affluent communities, they are, on average, as racially diverse as the rest of the district. Hillsborough as a whole is 32 percent white. Those numbers in the four charter schools are: KCC Prep, 20 percent white; Pivot, 37 percent; SouthShore, 26 percent; and Woodmont, 7 percent.
Another argument, raised by charter supporters to challenge the Hillsborough board, is that the district is itself a flawed operation. Thirty-nine schools are on a state list for persistently low performance — far more than in any other district. Hillsborough’s finances have been rocky for close to a decade. And Melissa Snively — the one board member who has supported charter schools consistently — described a state survey about special education. “We are second from the last in satisfaction,” she told the board.
Vaughn and Combs have said repeatedly that the fault for much of this lies in Florida’s inadequate funding of public education. Snively agreed, but said the solution is to pressure the Legislature for more money.
For now, district leaders and board members said they are intent on improving their system of monitoring the district’s more than 50 charter schools.
Combs would also like to see some sort of report card that would make it easier for parents to evaluate charter schools before they enroll their children.
“It’s not political for me,” she said. “It’s not about getting money back for our schools. It’s not about charter versus public schools. It’s about protecting each and every child in this district and, really, in the state.”