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Education

School district suggests changes to head off MacDill base charter


Published:   |   Updated: December 19, 2013 at 05:46 PM

TAMPA – When the Hillsborough County School Board denied an application for a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base last week, district officials vowed to come up with ways to better serve military families on their own.

Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia called for a focus group to brainstorm options instead of opening a new MacDill Charter Academy, which would have served students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Ideas have surfaced, Elia said, after a meeting of the focus group — and some involve transforming existing schools.

“We can work through this,” Elia said Thursday in a meeting with the editorial board of The Tampa Tribune. “We’ve offered lots of other options.”

One option is to add sixth through eighth grades to Tinker Elementary School, a K-5 public school located on the base and nearly at capacity. It’s an expensive measure, about $4 million that the district doesn’t have. A second, less costly option is to add the elementary grades to Monroe Middle School, near the base, to accommodate more children whose parents work there.

Yet another option is to designate spots at Monroe for base children, Elia said.

Still, base commander Col. Scott DeThomas said the charter school still seems the best way to go for the estimated 900 students it would serve. DeThomas sees it as an alternative to traditional public schools where students would be surrounded by peers going through similar challenges — like having parent stationed overseas.

“These options were discussed in the past but never came to fruition,” he said. “I realize the school district does a really good job with their choice program and provides options for families in Tampa. But at the same time, the dynamics of being a military kid are sometimes are in disagreement with the methodology of what the school district provides.

A charter school hasn’t been ruled out yet. The group that applied for it and was denied by the school board, the nonprofit Florida Charter Educational Foundation board, plans to fight the decision at the state level.

The charter school board decided at a special meeting Thursday to file an appeal with the state Board of Education.

DeThomas said while he is not involved in the appeals process, the MacDill community is anxiously awaiting for the process to play out.

“I think it’s notable they’re willing to challenge it at the next level,” DeThomas said. “We are in the wait-and-see mode. We hope we can get to a solution that’s best for our families in the end.”

The Hillsborough County School Board voted unanimously last week to turn down the application because of questions about the charter school’s proposed governance structure.

While the educational foundation would have been the charter holder, day-to-day operations would have been run by the company Charter Schools USA. The foundation would have been the oversight authority, with a MacDill council advising.

Foundation board President Ken Haiko argues that the charter application is solid and that the school board’s decision is “completely without merit.”

“We are deeply committed to seeing this through to the end,” Haiko said, in a written statement. “Our military service men and women deserve our unrelenting determination to provide an educational option that makes sense for their families and we are not willing to be deterred by nonsensical political grandstanding.”

The foundation’s board has 30 days from Dec 10, the day the application was denied, to appeal before the state Board of Education and notify the school district. The district then has 30 days to submit a response to the state board, which will vote to uphold or overturn the denial.

If the state board overturns the school district’s decision, there is nothing in state law that would prevent the school from opening as early as fall 2014, a Florida Department of Education spokeswoman said.

Charter Schools USA manages 58 schools across the country and 42 schools in Florida, including Temple Terrace’s Woodmont Elementary School. Woodmont received a grade of F from the state, another concern for the school district.

Elia said the charter group could revise its application and apply again next year.

“In the position I’m in,” she said, “I can’t give a charter to a school where the application clearly doesn’t meet the law.”

ekourkounis@tampatrib.com

(813)259-7999

Twitter: @ErinKTBO

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