The Hillsborough County School Board renewed contracts for five more privately managed charter schools Tuesday, and this time only one received better than a C grade from the state.
Combined, the schools are projected to serve 3,000 students in the coming school year, which means $21 million in state dollars will be diverted to them. The approvals followed four votes on Feb. 8 to extend contracts at another four schools, with a combined enrollment of more than 3,000 and costing $28 million.
Defenders of charter schools, a growing sector in Hillsborough and beyond, note that this money follows the children, and the districts see their expenses decrease with a smaller population.
Before state leaders threatened the district with financial sanctions in June for trying to close charter schools without enough notice, School Board members were reluctant to support schools with spotty performance records.
Now, following their attorney’s advice, they keep the schools open as long as they do not have a clear legal reason to close them.
Of the five renewals approved Tuesday, Victory K-8 and SLAM, both in Citrus Park, and BridgePrep Riverview all have C grades from the state. The votes were 6-1 to approve all three, with board member Jessica Vaughn dissenting.
Vaughn said she could not figure out how some of the schools graded C had lower grades than the surrounding district-operated schools, especially when charter schools often have lower percentages of students with English language difficulty or learning disabilities.
The vote was closer, 4-3, for Excelsior Preparatory, an F school that operates from inside University Square Mall. According to minutes from Excelsior’s last board meeting, the district has said it will close Excelsior if it earns another F this year. If that happens, Excelsior will consider an appeal.
Board members Stacy Hahn and Lynn Gray had many questions for district staff about their report on Excelsior.
“I am perplexed as to how an F school shows no non-compliance,” Hahn said. “This is a failing school and there are no concerns noted by our staff? That’s not logical. How do you have a failing school and I don’t see anything noted here that’s of concern?”
Vaughn, Gray and board chairperson Nadia Combs cast the dissenting votes.
Board member Melissa Snively, often a supporter of charter schools, said there is clearly something wrong when lower-graded charter schools are able to lure families away from district schools that are graded A or B.
She asked, “What are we doing as a district, that we can control, to win these students back to traditional public education with our better performing schools, minutes away?”
The only A school on Tuesday’s agenda was Plato Academy, a third Citrus Park school that is part of the Pinellas-based group of schools that teach Greek language and culture. As Plato is designated by the state as a high-performing school, it was able to get a 15-year extension. The other extensions were for five years.
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Plato was approved unanimously.
At last count, more than 33,000 public school students in Hillsborough attended charter schools. That’s close to 15 percent of the total enrollment.
Combs grilled Cinzia DeLange, the district’s charter schools director, on financial and performance records at the schools. She remarked, as she has in the past, that she would like to find a way to educate parents about the strengths and weaknesses of charter schools
“We want parents to have choice,” she said. “But we want them to have knowledge to make the best choice for their children.”
In other business Tuesday, the board:
- Approved a bus driver wage hike that will cost more than $2 million, but is expected to help fill 135 driver vacancies that are making it hard to get students to school on time. Starting hourly wages will rise from $14.57 to $16.04.
- Voted to name its newest school, a K-8 in Apollo Beach, for Dorothy Carter York. York, who passed away in 2012, was an author and educator for 45 years, teaching English at Blake High, Hillsborough High and Hillsborough Community College.
- Discussed various issues concerning reading materials before they approved a $1.3 million book purchase. Some members were concerned that the state’s new reading list does not have enough religious or ethnic diversity. Others are looking for ways to help parents opt out if they object to content in a book that has been assigned to their child. Snively asked for a workshop about book selection. Terry Connor, the district’s chief academic officer, said staff are now developing a plan that would notify parents about reading materials at the beginning of the school year.