Hillsborough broke the law and must keep four charter schools open, state officials say

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Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran steadfastly maintained his position on Wednesday that the Hillsborough County School Board broke state law when it decided last month to close four charter schools, affecting more than 2,000 students.

And the State Board of Education, meeting in Seminole, supported it.

The Hillsborough board of directors will now meet in emergency session on Tuesday and may reconsider the four votes it took on June 15 against renewing school charters.

The four schools – Woodmont and SouthShore, both run by Charter Schools USA, as well as Pivot and Kids Community College High School – have filed appeals with the state, attorneys for the school district said.

Charter schools are publicly funded but run independently from local districts. In Hillsborough, they attract some 30,000 students, bringing in about $ 250 million annually that would otherwise go to the school district.

If the non-renewal rulings stand, Corcoran has warned the district that it can invoke the state’s supervisory and enforcement authority. In the process, Hillsborough faces sanctions that could include a dramatic loss of funding in a system already strained by budget cuts.

Until Wednesday, the quarrel over the four schools had been played out between the neighborhood and Corcoran.

The meeting, filled with speakers from both sides of the issue, gave members of the State Council an opportunity to speak out.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran listens at the State Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, where he expressed his exasperation with Hillsborough County school officials. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

In an earlier discussion on Hillsborough’s budget issues, State Council Member Tom Grady asked Hillsborough Council Chair Lynn Gray if council was willing to spend limited funds on fees legal defense of charter school closures.

Gray said she couldn’t respond, at the lawyers’ request. She then argued that charter schools are not subject to the same regulatory standards as district-run schools – a point Corcoran later disputed – and said that without the rapid proliferation of charter schools, financial problems Hillsborough would be much less serious.

Grady called this response “totally insensitive”.

State Council Member Ben Gibson asked Hillsborough Superintendent Addison Davis if he anticipated the school board’s actions when he recommended the renewal of the four contracts.

“Every agenda item that I bring to the board, I expect it to pass,” Davis replied.

At one point, Davis tried to get Corcoran to clarify the consequences the district will face if he does not allow schools to remain open. A letter sent by Corcoran in June listed many possibilities, most involving the suspension of state and federal funding.

Much of the large crowd that turned up for Wednesday's State Board of Education meeting in Seminole were made up of parents, teachers and other supporters from four charter schools in Hillsborough County .
Much of the large crowd that gathered for the State Board of Education meeting in Seminole on Wednesday was made up of parents, teachers and other supporters from four charter schools in Hillsborough County. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“The consequences are just, simply, following the law.” said Corcoran, somewhat exasperated. “The easiest thing to do is follow the law. “

Corcoran later reflected that “we never got to this point because normally elected officials follow the law… This loyalty or bias towards a system and not the students is reprehensible. You can’t have those who raise their right hand and swear to uphold the law breaking the law.

Corcoran maintains that Hillsborough was legally obligated to notify the four schools of non-renewal decisions at least 90 days before the charter contracts expired on June 30. Instead, the word came 15 days before the expiration date.

Hillsborough lawyers, however, say Corcoran misinterpreted the law. They say he based the 90-day rule on a sample charter contract that was attached to Florida’s administrative code and did not come into effect until after the four schools were launched.

Lawyers for the school district want this debate resolved in the appeal process, with schools remaining open until a decision is made. Corcoran’s position is that Hillsborough’s action has been so disruptive to students and their families that it should be called off before further damage occurs.

When Hillsborough School Board Attorney Jim Porter said Corcoran had failed to give the district due process over Wednesday’s board action, Corcoran called the statement “offensive” and said said to Porter: “You have been given a more due process than anyone in your situation deserves.”

Meanwhile, Hillsborough School Board member Jessica Vaughn wants Davis to take responsibility for not bringing charter renewals to the board early enough. “It’s Addison’s responsibility,” she said after the meeting. “He put us in this position.

Davis explained that, historically, the board has always reviewed charter proposals in May and June so they don’t disrupt student learning. As for the 90-day legal issue, he said, “we hope to resolve this matter with the state amicably.”

Speakers lined up at Seminole to discuss both sides of the issue. Staff and families at charter schools told the State Council that without these independent schools, children would be subjected to inferior education and bullying.

“I can’t say enough how much I love my school,” said Zoe Sanchez, a growing fourth grade student at SouthShore in Riverview. “The teachers care about me, they help me and they even make me laugh.

Supporters of the Hillsborough board action included civic education teacher Scott Hottenstein. He and others said the state was trying to usurp local control. “Do not deprive 220,000 students of funding to support 2,000,” he urged the Council of State.

Others said charter schools attract a statistically more affluent population and that, because of gaps in their services to students with disabilities, they violate federal civil rights laws.

The unprecedented June 15 school board action came in a year when Hillsborough was also on the verge of financial insolvency. At one point, Davis said in a recap of the events of the year, the district expected to end the year with a negative reserve of $ 23 million.

Reductions in staff and other expenses have enabled the district to reverse this trend. Using federal COVID-19 relief dollars, they were able to end the year with the 3% reserve level required by law.

Many attendees at Wednesday's meeting of the State Board of Education spoke in favor of allowing charter schools to be chosen.
Many attendees at Wednesday’s meeting of the State Board of Education spoke in favor of allowing charter schools to be chosen. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Heads of state, however, are not swayed by the argument that charter schools are draining district funding. They say Hillsborough has a poor spending record, and many have been offended that the district would fix its budget deficit by denying families the right to use charters.

“Their financial crisis has been going on for more than 10 years,” said Joe York, member of the Council of State.

“Then we find out that the school board that was in charge and that led to this crisis is now attacking charter schools. It really was a great case of psychological projection. “We’re not doing our job, so look over here. And we’re going to attack (charter schools) for the very thing we don’t do ourselves.

York said “it was appalling that they could even go ahead with what they were trying to do, given their house and the mess there”.

Gibson summed up the discussion the same way. “We have defended some charter schools,” he said. “It has been mentioned several times that charter schools are public schools. They are not anything less. And they are on an equal footing. We also stood up for the rule of law. “


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