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Pinellas officials fighting charter school legislation

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CLEARWATER -

New proposals from Florida legislators could bring more charter schools to Pinellas County, but not if Pinellas County School Board members have their say.

“Sometimes what sounds great in theory, when you put it into practice, it doesn’t come out the same way,” said school board member Peggy O’Shea.

O’Shea and four other school board members traveled to Tallahassee last week to meet with the Florida School Board Association and question legislators on potential education bills that could open the county up to more charter schools.

“We had a lot of questions about some of these proposals that legislators couldn’t answer,” O’Shea said.

What was called the “parent trigger” bill in past years — now called the “parent empowerment” bill — would allow parents to request that school districts rehabilitate schools that earn consecutive failing grades from the state instead of leaving the decision up to the school board; in many cases, that would mean converting the schools into charter schools.

School board Chairwoman Carol Cook said she thinks believes the legislation will pass but is more punitive toward school boards than then a helpful tool for parents. It had cleared three House committees by Friday and is awaiting a vote by the full House. The bill, though, passed in the House last year before being killed by the Senate.

Last month, Florida was ranked the nation’s fifth-best state for charter schools by a national charter school advocacy group because of laws that make it easier for them to operate.

“We aren’t just a bunch of yahoos that have been elected; we are constitutional officers and we are responsible for the education of these students,” Cook said. “I think after our talks they’ll put something in there that says school board members have the final say on what happens to these schools.

“Oftentimes, the failing schools are the ones that don’t have parent involvement to begin with, so why do we think this is the magic bullet to fix the school through parents getting involved?”

The only Pinellas County school that would trigger the type of changes outlined in the pending legislation is Imagine Charter School at St. Petersburg, which has earned three F’s and one D since opening in 2008, landing it on a list of Florida’s 100 lowest-performing schools. The bill doesn’t apply to charter schools, and the school board already has voted to close Imagine at the end of the school year.

But the bill and Imagine could still significantly affect other Pinellas schools in a big way, Cook said.

A second part of the parent-trigger bill that says if a charter school is closed by the school board, the schools that absorb its students only have one year to get those students’ academic performance up to grade level, a tight timeline that could not only cost the district funding but also place extra stress on schools.

“We have a prime example in Imagine,” Cook said.

“Some of those students could come in as much as three years below grade level, and we only have a year to get them back on track,” Cook said. “No one can say for sure what will happen if they aren’t — if we’ll loose lose money or our schools will drop in letter grades or what.”

When Imagine closes in June, most of its 250 elementary students will transfer to Lakewood Elementary School, a district-run public school with the highest learning gains in the county.

Though Lakewood should be able to bring the students up to speed, other schools might falter in meeting the tight timeline imposed by the parent-trigger bill.

Legislators also are considering 12 other charter school bills, including one that would require school districts to give unused buildings to charter schools. The provision could give about 20 properties away without any profit for Pinellas County Schools.

Because potential charter schools must have to have an address before the school board can approve them, O’Shea said she thinks hopeful charters would quickly snatch up many properties.

This school year, Pinellas County received 19 charter school applications, but 10 withdrew from the process. Only Four were approved, but that number could swell if they were promised extra facilities, she said.

“Pinellas County doesn’t have any vacant land anymore,” O’Shea said. “It’s not like we can buy it in the future if we need it, there’s nothing left.

“The county is built-out, and though our county population has decreased somewhat, we know that goes in cycles, especially in schools.

“We have many properties that we bought as investments, and we have schools that need to be rebuilt and renovated,” O’Shea said. “We can’t afford to just give property away with no return.”

The Pinellas County Council PTA plans to lobby against the parent-trigger bill and the charter legislation by calling legislators and sending groups to Tallahassee in mid-April, said president Mary Bartholf. School board members will continue to lobby legislators until the session ends and the budget is finalized in early May.

“These bills don’t really empower parents, they allow a charter company to come in and take over, so basically they allow companies to make a profit off our children’s education and take money away from the public education system,” Bartholf said. “We’re all for empowering parents, this is just not the way to do it.”

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