Wednesday, Sep 03, 2014
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Pasco school board reluctantly OK’s online charter school

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LAND O’ LAKES — A year ago, Pasco County School Board members had so many concerns about a proposed online charter school that they rejected the school’s application, citing a state investigation into the management firm that would run the school and academic troubles at other charters the company oversees.

After an appeal battle that went to Tallahassee and back, board members are no less skeptical now. But based on the advice of attorneys they voted 3-1 Tuesday to approve a five-year contact with Florida Virtual Academy at Pasco.

Board member Steve Luikart was absent.

Board member Alison Crumbley, who cast the dissenting vote, said she worried that approving the contract would take away the school board’s ability to control the quality of school choice it gives students and parents.

“This is very frustrating to me that we have to accept this,” Crumbley said.

Those who voted yes were just as uneasy.

“I still believe this board had very valid concerns when we attempted to deny this application previously,” board member Joanne Hurley said.

Superintendent Kurt Browning, expressing reservations as well, vowed that the district would step up its monitoring of all charter schools in light of the situation.

“I am not out to pick a fight, but I will tell you I am concerned about this charter school,” Browning told the board, even as he recommended approval of the contract after consulting with board attorneys Dennis and Nancy Alfonso.

Browning said the attorneys told him the charter school meets all the legal requirements of a charter, leaving no choice but to approve the contract.

The virtual school will enroll a minimum of 50 students and a maximum of 200 students in kindergarten through eighth-grade for the school year that begins Aug. 19. By year five, the school expects to enroll 395 students in kindergarten through 12th-grade.

School board members also were unhappy that the school appears to have tenuous local ties. Florida Virtual Academy of Pasco is part of a multi-county charter school operation run by the nonprofit Southwest Florida Virtual Charter School Board. That board, in turn, contracts with the for-profit company K12 Florida, a subsidiary of Virginia-based K12 Inc.

The charter school board does have Pasco members, but plans to hold as few as two board meetings a year within the county.

Joe Chisholm, a vice president at K12 Inc., said at least some of the Pasco school board’s concerns have been addressed or were proven to be unsubstantiated.

A state investigation into claims the company used uncertified teachers in Seminole County showed that was not the case. The company did have three out-of-field teachers, which means they were teaching subjects other than ones they are certified to teach.

Academic performance, another concern, also is improving, and K12 has begun math intervention and language arts intervention programs for struggling students, Chisholm said. Virtual education used to draw few academically challenged students, he said, but over the last couple of years more students have signed up who are significantly behind where they should be in terms of grade level.

Chisholm told the school board that one advantage to virtual learning is that the curriculum can be improved rather quickly. Also, virtual learning is one-on-one learning, he said.

“It is the future,” Chisholm said. “It’s not for everybody, but for some people it’s the perfect thing to them.”

Florida Virtual Academy at Pasco actually has been in the works for two years. The school board also rejected the school’s first application in 2011. The charter school initially appealed to the state, but later withdrew that appeal and applied again in 2012.

When the school board rejected that application, Florida Virtual Academy again appealed and this time won a favorable ruling before the state’s Charter Schools Appeal Commission, which recommended the state Board of Education overturn the Pasco board’s decision.

At that point, the Pasco school district decided to stop fighting the appeal and began contract negotiations.

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