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Incoming speaker Corcoran says bill that would benefit his wife's charter school is part of broader reform

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, says a bill that would benefit his wife’s charter school is part of a broader reform. [SCOTT KEELER | Times] 
Published Mar. 30, 2016

SHADY HILLS — Classical Preparatory School, a charter school founded by the wife of incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, has its sights set on expansion.

Opened in 2014, its waiting list is twice the size of its 406-student enrollment. And its contract lets it grow to nearly 1,000 students through 12th grade.

To explore its options, lawyers for the kindergarten through ninth-grade school last week asked to meet with Pasco County development planners about a possible 37,000-square-foot addition. The request came two weeks after lawmakers approved a bill that would make it easier for Classical Prep to access state funding for construction projects.

The perception, noted by some in Tallahassee, was of a powerful lawmaker benefiting from legislation he helped advance. But Corcoran said Tuesday that the two actions were not related, and he bristled at suggestions otherwise. The language allowing charters access to state money after two, rather than three, years of operation had a much bigger target, he explained.

"The reason that law changed is because the Legislature is done allowing big, for-profit corporations to have in statute laws that protect their profits and squeeze out the competition," Corcoran said.

The past rule gave charter firms such as Imagine Schools and Charter Schools USA a leg up compared with local startups, he said, because the locals struggled to afford usable facilities while the companies had plenty of cash to underwrite real estate deals.

Imagine has been the subject of reports across the nation, including in Pinellas and Pasco counties, showing how its construction wing built new schools and then leased the sites back to its charter operators at higher rents than other area charter schools paid.

"When the smoke clears, public dollars have paid for a private facility of which the public has no ownership interest in," said Senate Education Appropriations chairman Don Gaetz. Over time, he said, the Florida Legislature "created a real estate scheme for private individuals."

Controversial since the state began allowing them in the mid 1990s, charters are privately run schools that receive public funds and are exempt from many red tape rules. They've grown exponentially in Florida to include more than 650 schools serving more than 250,000 students statewide.

During this year's legislative session, Corcoran and Gaetz set out to curb the "scheme" Gaetz spoke of and give more financial flexibility to successful local charters.

They negotiated tougher provisions on charter school capital funding during the final days of the session, including mandates that state money go only to charters owned by the public, nonprofits or groups not connected with charter operations.

Those provisions against "private enrichment" did not make the final bill (HB 7029), which passed the Legislature and awaits Gov. Rick Scott's action.

Many House members lamented the deletion of those proposed regulations. But Gaetz said they could not survive the pushback by "legislators who had personal financial interests, or their families had financial interests in these real estate transactions."

House Education Appropriations chairman Erik Fresen consults for an architectural firm that specializes in charter schools. His sister and brother-in-law are top executives for one of Florida's largest charter school management companies.

Corcoran, by contrast, has no financial interest in charter schools. His children attend Classical Prep, which his wife, Anne, spent three years planning and another two years operating.

Anne Corcoran volunteered hundreds of hours to the effort, and spent about $11,000 of her own money toward the school's creation.

Gaetz said the incoming speaker "never asked for any consideration," and expected him to continue to push for charter school funding reforms.

That's Corcoran's plan as he moves into the speaker's role. The reforms "will pass, in my opinion, in the next two years because it is good governance," he said.

By the time Classical Prep is ready to act, it will have been running for three years, anyway. Anne Corcoran, a lawyer who receives $1 a year to serve as the school's CEO, said its board wants to grow slowly and deliberately.

The school, which has an A rating from the state, teaches Latin to its elementary students, and kids in the middle grades "Logic School" take all honors-level courses.

Classical Prep hasn't made any requests to the Pasco County School Board, Anne Corcoran noted, and asked to meet with county planning officials just to know what can and cannot be done on its site just north of State Road 52 and west of the Suncoast Parkway.

"It's for the future," she said. "We can't really make any decisions until we know what our options are."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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