TALLAHASSEE — The Hillsborough County School Board is reversing course on a decision to not renew contracts for four charter schools after pressure from the state’s top education officials.
The school board held a special meeting Tuesday and voted 6-1 to renew the four schools’ contracts, marking a win for supporters of school-choice programs and alleviating uncertainty for roughly 2,000 students who attend the charters.
The reversal came after state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran last week demanded during a meeting of the State Board of Education that the Hillsborough board approve the contracts or risk losing funding.
“We’ve never gotten to this point because, normally, elected officials follow the law,” Corcoran said.
An attorney for the Hillsborough board said Tuesday the threatened funding would amount to about $950 million.
In mid-June, the Hillsborough board voted to not renew contracts with Woodmont Charter School, Pivot Charter School, Southshore Charter Academy and Kids Community College Charter High School.
The move went against the recommendations of Hillsborough schools Superintendent Addison Davis and district staff members.
In a June 23 letter to the Hillsborough board, Corcoran warned that its action “appears to be contrary to law.” Central to that claim was that the board failed to give adequate advance notice of non-renewal to the schools. Notice is required 90 days before a charter contract expires.
Corcoran’s letter said the non-renewal decision came 15 days before the charter contracts were set to expire and 56 days before the first day of classes for two of the schools.
Matthew Mears, general counsel for the state Department of Education, said last week that the notice of non-renewal would have needed to be issued by April 1 to be in compliance with state law.
“Had they done that, there is an administrative law judge, a process, where the dispute could’ve been resolved long before the school year,” Mears said during the State Board of Education meeting.
Jim Porter, attorney for the Hillsborough board, maintained on Tuesday that the board was under the assumption that adequate notice had been given.
“Our legal opinion is, when the board voted on June 15 and we sent the letters, that triggered the 90-day notice period. The state disagrees with that. That’s a question of law that’s debatable,” Porter said.
The State Board of Education also argued that Hillsborough board members “failed to provide colorable grounds for an emergency termination” of the contracts and called on a top state official overseeing charter schools to illustrate that the four schools weren’t lagging in academic performance.
Two of the schools currently have “B” grades and two have “C” grades under the state evaluation system.
“These four schools are performing at what is considered the on-par level with the other surrounding schools within a three-mile radius, or above. These are not underachieving schools that we’re talking about,” said Dakeyan Graham, executive director of the state Department of Education’s Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice.
Each of the schools’ student populations are made up of mostly minority students, and all of Woodmont Charter School’s students are considered economically disadvantaged,
Marva Johnson, vice chairwoman of the State Board of Education, argued during last week’s meeting that local officials wouldn’t have treated a traditional public school the same way.
“We wouldn’t be looking at last-minute non-renewals or closings of a traditional public school. And when our public charter schools are serving our students well, and they clearly need this option, it just is surprising to me that we are here today with this as the outcome,” Johnson said.
But addressing the State Board of Education last week, Hillsborough County School Board Chairwoman Lynn Gray questioned the accountability measures placed on charters. She also pointed to funding for traditional public schools dwindling as more students leave to attend charters and other modes of education.
“If we’re going to have a per-pupil spending at a lower rate, and yet have to fund all of our public schools and the social, and the emotional and the academics — and a lot of that’s pouring out with students going away from us, it gets to be very tough,” Gray said. “If we had equal oversight and accountability with our charters … I think a lot of this would go away.”
But State Board of Education member Tom Grady, who was selected last week as the incoming chairman of the board, pushed back.
“The issue about accountability and oversight of charter schools, I would respectfully suggest, is not yours. It is the Legislature’s and it is the Constitution’s and it is the people of the state of Florida,” Grady, a former state House member, said.
David Struhs, state director of policy and advocacy for the school-choice advocacy group Foundation for Florida’s Future, applauded the Hillsborough board’s reversal Tuesday.
“With today’s vote, the Hillsborough school board did the right thing and ensured more than 2,000 students can keep attending the school they and their families chose,” Struhs said in a statement.