TAMPA — Three Hillsborough County charter schools operated by the Charter Schools USA management company could be forced to close if the school district’s ongoing concerns over who is in charge are not resolved soon.
Charter school officials say they aren’t doing anything wrong at the three schools, which serve a total of 2,700 students.
In letters sent July 29 to officials at Henderson Hammock, Winthrop and Woodmont charter schools, Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia wrote that she plans to recommend that the school board terminate their contracts, which are up for renewal later this year.
“The charter holders of Winthrop, Woodmont and Henderson Hammock charter schools have not exercised continuing oversight over the operations of these schools,” Elia wrote, adding that instead, Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA seems to be in charge.
The district has tried unsuccessfully many times in the last several months to discuss the schools’ governance structures, and the schools have refused, Elia wrote.
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State law requires that school districts give charter schools notice of at least 90 days before dropping their contracts. The schools may schedule a hearing within 14 days to discuss the issues, Elia wrote.
The charter schools’ board members disagree with Elia’s claims. They insist their schools are locally controlled and operate under the governance structures approved by the school district.
“We will do everything in our power to protect the students and parents who have chosen these schools and we will exercise every legal means of stopping this nonsense,” said Rod Jurado, chairman of the Bay Area Charter Foundation, in a prepared statement. His board oversees Winthrop and Woodmont.
“Furthermore, we are certain that Ms. Elia will have thousands of outraged parents who will not only be demanding answers, but will be sure to make it clear to the school board that this silly waste of time and taxpayers dollars is not acceptable.”
Charter schools operate publicly, but are privately run. They are governed by nonprofit boards of directors and can be managed by for-profit companies like the Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA, which this fall will manage 70 schools in seven states — more than half in Florida.
State law and district policy do not state that a charter school’s governing board must be comprised of local members, but it is a provision in Hillsborough’s agreement with the schools, district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.
“We have a responsibility to protect students and parents,” Hegarty said Monday. “One of the ways we do that is (to ensure) charter schools in reality are operated by local boards and not by for-profit companies. We insist and require they be run by a local board.”
Last December, the Hillsborough school board denied what would have been the county’s fourth Charter Schools USA campus, MacDill Charter Academy, amid concern about who would be running the school. Last week, a newly formed nonprofit called MacDill Charter Academy LLC reapplied to open a base school in the 2015-16 school year.
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In his statement, Jurado blasted the district’s school grades, which were released by the Florida Department of Education in July — 22 traditional schools earned D grades and six earned F’s. He said Elia is making a “pathetic attempt to undermine high-performing charter schools.”
Hegarty said school grades are irrelevant to the local-control issue, but pointed out that fewer Hillsborough schools earned D grades this year and that the number of A schools increased. The district has one more F-rated traditional school than it did last year.
“We had 85 A’s this year, compared to 54 the previous year,” Hegarty said. “That’s actually a healthy and impressive increase.”
Henderson Hammock improved its grade from a C to a B, Winthrop from a B to an A and Woodmont from an F to a C.
The charter-holder for Henderson Hammock, which will be starting its third year this fall, is the nonprofit Florida Charter Educational Foundation, which is also based in Fort Lauderdale. Its chairman is Ken Haiko, who serves on two other Florida charter schools boards — Renaissance Charter School Inc. and Lee Charter Foundation.
The Bay Area Charter Foundation, a Hillsborough nonprofit, serves as an advisory council for the school and is the charter-holder for Winthrop and Woodmont, which are both going into their fourth year.
Terry Johnson, Winthrop’s principal, said he hopes the issue is resolved soon. He’s gotten calls from parents worried about the school’s fate.
“Through our charter agreement, we have certain expectations for our board,” he said. “We meet all of those without falter. The whole thing is just unbelievable to me, especially at this juncture when we’re getting ready to start our school year.”