The opening day enrollment for Pasco County's newest charter school set off alarm bells in the school district's administrative offices.
Pasco MYcroSchool had projected serving 250 high school students in its first year. Yet when classes began Monday, only 11 showed up. The next day, just three more came in.
The thing is, the district already had given the school $252,152, or two months' worth of state funding, based on 250 students. It also was holding $257,914 from a state startup grant that was rooted in the same projection.
What happened next surprised school district officials accustomed to seeing the state err on the side of charters.
They weren't convinced that MYcroSchool should get all that cash when it had met only a fraction of its expectations.
"What's happening with that money?" asked School Board member Alison Crumbley. "That's a lot of money for 14 kids."
Yet superintendent Kurt Browning sounded wary of making an effort to stop the flow of money. The district had its hand slapped in the past for such an effort, so Browning held out little hope that calls to the Department of Education would yield results.
In Florida's current education climate, few in the district anticipated anything but a message to pass along the funds anyway. The Legislature and state Board of Education, they reasoned, had a clear track record of favoring charters.
Look no further than the shift this spring of millions in local capital tax revenue to charters, at a time when traditional school leaders clamored for cash to repair aging campuses and build for growth.
But that's not what happened here.
After a handful of calls seeking state guidance, district finance director Jim Class got the directive: Don't send MYcroSchool any of the grant money without receipts for "appropriate" purchases for a school that size.
Additionally, the district will not give the charter any more regular funding until the school catches up with the $252,152 already delivered.
"They want to see if enrollment picks up," district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. MYcroSchool focuses on catching kids up who are behind on their high school credits.
Education department spokeswoman Audrey Walden noted the decisions were based on state law, which considers that charter schools might not meet their sometimes overstated goals.
Regular funding to charters who fall under 75 percent of their projections must be based on actual enrollment and student membership surveys. And grants can be terminated if too few kids show up.
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So it's incumbent on the charter school to boost its numbers. The district isn't required to automatically pass on state money, as board member Crumbley fretted.
MYcroSchool principal Sandra Sonberg acknowledged being surprised by the school's low head count. But she had "confidence and patience" that the new campus would have 250 students by year's end, noting MYcroSchools in other communities such as St. Petersburg started small but quickly grew.
School district officials said MYcroSchool did not ask for help identifying potential students, even when offered.
The school has started advertising, though, and Sonberg said current students would help with word-of-mouth endorsements to friends who might come.
But the money is critical, she said, in allowing the school to set up and operate.
Its budget for the grant funds included desks, chairs, cabinets and even a metal detector "for school safety."
Still, Sonberg did not argue that her school should receive the full amount regardless of its numbers.
"If I do not get a certain enrollment, then we do not get to keep all that money," she said. "That would not be fair."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jeffsolochek.