With state sanctions in mind, Hillsborough renews 4 charter schools

Some School Board members were supportive, but others said the state left them no choice.
Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn said she is not happy about a state system that requires her to approve charter schools.
Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn said she is not happy about a state system that requires her to approve charter schools. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 9, 2022|Updated Feb. 9, 2022

Chastened by the state last summer, the Hillsborough County School Board approved four charter school renewals on Tuesday even as some members complained about having to do so.

Cleared to stay open are Henderson Hammock K-8, Waterset K-8, the combined Kids Community College SE and Kids Community Southeast Middle School; and the Florida Autism Center of Excellence.

Together, the four schools are expected to serve more than 3,000 students in 2022. That works out to more than $24 million that will be taken out of the district budget to serve those students.

Before the votes, students, staff and parents lined up to speak about the positive experiences they have had at the schools. Quincy Rients, now a student at Lennard High School in Ruskin, said Waterset gave him the tools he needed to deal with social anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“I was being nurtured, encouraged and inspired by all the caring and committed staff at Waterset in Apollo Beach,” he said. “I was never just a statistic or another student number there.”

Waterset and Henderson Hammock are managed by the for-profit Charter Schools USA of Fort Lauderdale. In June, the Hillsborough board tried to shut down two other Hillsborough schools under the same management group, Woodmont and SouthShore, when their contracts came up for renewal.

On that night, the board moved to close four schools. State education officials said the district violated a state law that would have required 90 days’ advance notice. The district argued that the 90-day provision did not apply to them. But after the state threatened financial sanctions, the district reversed its position and renewed the schools’ contracts.

“We have a very small amount of leeway in approving or denying these charter schools,” School Board member Jessica Vaughn said Tuesday before she voted to renew Henderson Hammock’s contract for five years.

Vaughn described a letter she had received from a family affected by the June vote. The family had supported the school at first, then accused the school of failing to meet the needs of their special-needs child.

Beyond the occasional problems, Vaughn said, “they’re over-saturating neighborhoods and competing with themselves.”

Board members Nadia Combs and Lynn Gray, who have also criticized charter schools in the past, made statements about the lesser degree of diversity in the charter schools and limited oversight from the district or state.

Board member Melissa Snively, responding to Vaughn’s remarks, said the family who had problems could have just as easily had a problem in a district-run school.

“Sometimes it’s not charter schools all together, but it’s just a particular school,” Snively said. “Charter schools are part of our public school system. There are a lot of wonderful services that charter schools offer, but there is accountability.”