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Pasco schools enlist an unlikely ally to help keep up with growth — charters

The School Board approved negotiations with leaders from Dayspring, Pepin charter schools.
Work was recently completed on an expansion and renovation of the Pepin Academies Pasco campus in New Port Richey.
Work was recently completed on an expansion and renovation of the Pepin Academies Pasco campus in New Port Richey. [ Facebook ]
Published Jan. 4|Updated Jan. 4

As new home developments continue to boom across Pasco County, the local school district barely can keep up with the demand for seats.

Builders who want to tell buyers that nearby schools await them increasingly have turned to charter schools to fill the void. Charters operated by large for-profit management firms lately have popped up in Wesley Chapel, for example, to serve families who didn’t want to attend crowded public campuses.

Rather than fight the trend, Pasco district officials have embraced the idea of charter expansion. But they want to focus the effort on successful, locally operated charters rather than those run by corporations.

It’s an unusual approach for a school district in Florida, where the norm is to resist charters, which steer students and revenue away from public systems.

At its final meeting of 2021, the School Board authorized superintendent Kurt Browning and his staff to pursue partnerships with two of the county’s most recognized local charters — Dayspring Academy and Pepin Academies — that could include help paying for new campuses in growth areas of the county.

Ideas under consideration include the use of school impact fees, district capital funds and bonding. Charters do not usually have access to such support, and any arrangement Pasco reaches could be among the first in Florida.

“I do prefer working with charter schools who have local boards, local people running them, rather than big chains,” board member Colleen Beaudoin said. “When parents do have concerns, they can talk to them. I rarely get complaints about the locally run charter schools.”

That issue has been at the forefront of almost every charter school application review before the Pasco board. When members have raised concerns about proposals before them, they’ve regularly criticized the applicants without ties to the community.

Related: Despite reservations, Pasco School Board approves new Academica charter school

Deputy superintendent Ray Gadd said any new initiatives are far from being a done deal. But the time has come to acknowledge that the war between district and charter schools is over, Gadd said, and the district wants to demonstrate how they can work together.

“The Pasco County school system has a commitment to local, homegrown charter schools. We have relationships with them,” he said. “To the extent we can support them, we’re going to do it.”

Leaders from Dayspring and Pepin said they welcomed the opportunity to explore the partnership concept.

John Legg, a former state senator who co-founded Dayspring more than 20 years ago, said he was intrigued when district officials brought him the idea of branching into the Angeline development of central Pasco, where Moffitt Cancer Center is building a medical research lab and thousands of new homes are coming.

To serve the region, the district is building a school focusing on science, technology, engineering and math for students in grades 6-12. Dayspring — which has focused to this point on lower income west Pasco — could possibly bring an elementary campus there. The charter, which this year opened a new collegiate high school, also is expanding from its Hudson base into southwest Pasco.

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“Our answer is yes,” Legg said of the collaboration. “We’re in a unique spot. We’re one of the oldest (charter schools) in Florida, and we’re not threatened by the school district. We know what we do and we do it well.”

Pepin Academies, a 21-year-old Hillsborough County-based charter that serves students with special education needs, recently completed renovations of its New Port Richey school, which enrolls about 400 children in third grade through high school.

Natalie King, the school’s foundation chairperson who also led Pepin’s Pasco board, said the charter identified Wesley Chapel as an area that could benefit from its offerings. If the school district can help it secure and develop a site near the Kirkland Ranch subdivision, where the district is constructing its newest technical education magnet high school, it would make no sense to ignore the possibility, King said.

“If they can help us get better, and we can help them, why not?” King said. “We want to be a great partner. What we do is unique, and it’s supplemental in terms of what the district is doing.”

Pepin’s board has reviewed the concept but no specific plans exist, she noted.

School Board chairperson Cynthia Armstrong said she saw no reason to prevent the district from investigating collaboration with the charter schools. She added that any proposals that result from the conversations would receive a thorough review with public input.

“It is very open-ended,” Armstrong said. “Anything they come up with would come back to this board.”

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