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Charter advocates debate impact of local control

TAMPA – Who’s in charge, and where they are, have emerged as points of debate in a bid to open a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base — and in the broader debate about accountability in the growing charter school industry.

On one side are those who believe charter schools, operated with taxpayer money but independent of local school districts, are most effective when governed by a local board with local members. On the other are those who say a board half a state away works just fine as long it has quality members who show a passion for education.

Questions about governance arose last month when the Hillsborough County School Board denied an application to open a charter school this fall at MacDill serving kindergarten through eighth-grade students in military families — like nearly a dozen charter schools operating at bases across the country.

School board members and school district staff said charter school officials failed to lay out a clear governance structure showing who’s in charge in their nearly 500-page application.

An out-of-town nonprofit board of directors would have made decisions for the school, with input from a local advisory council of MacDill parents and business and military leaders. The for-profit Charter Schools USA, one of the biggest charter school management companies in the country, would carry out day-to-day operations.

Now, as MacDill Charter Academy officials appeal the denial to a state commission, many education experts say that no single governance structure has been proven superior but that local control is a common feature of many successful charter schools.

“If you could have everything you wanted, you’d have a local governing board comprised of independent, first-rate individuals that clearly understand their roles and responsibilities,” said Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. The Chicago-based association lays out best practices and guidelines for starting a charter school.

State Sen. John Legg, chairman of the Senate’s education committee, agrees.

Legg co-founded the Dayspring Academy charter school in Pasco County in 2000, where he taught and now serves as business administrator. The school, which has a local board made up of parents, earned a B grade from the Florida Department of Education in 2013, and was an A school for years before that.

“The governing board has a vested interest in the schools’ success,” Legg said. “They serve as a quasi-PTA because they’re so engaged. There are other models that are successful, but I do think when you have that local board tied directly to the school, it does have a higher degree of protection for kids.”

Richmond said charter school champions debate among themselves about the value of governing board “localness.”

“Some consider it to be extremely important,” he said. “Others say it’s nice, but if it means there’s going to be fewer charter schools, they’d rather have a good school with a board in another community.”

Among the nation’s 6,000-plus charter schools, 67 percent are independently run, nonprofit, single-site schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.  Just under 13 percent are run by for-profit companies and 20 percent are run by nonprofit organizations that govern multiple schools.

The MacDill Charter Academy would fall into the last category.

“At the end of the day, I don’t know if there is one best model,” said the alliance’s president and CEO, Nina Rees. “But the process needs to be transparent so parents are aware of how the school is structured.”

To Rees, whether a board is local is less important than the quality of the board members and how well it is able to govern a school.

“We have some really effective and high-quality charter schools that do not have local boards and others that are completely homegrown that are doing a good job,” she said.

When charter schools fail, it is most commonly due to governance issues, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. She added that having a local board making big decisions for a charter school is advantageous, but not a panacea.

“It’s really important to get governance right,” she said. “You don’t want to sacrifice expertise at the expense of local presence. Sometimes expertise can be found outside of the town.”

Richmond noted that many charter schools without local boards are doing just fine and that a local advisory council, as proposed at MacDill, is a good alternative.

That’s a common proposal when the board isn’t local,” he said. “In some big cities – New York, Los Angeles or Chicago – there’s one board overseeing a dozen schools. That board will have advisory councils for each school. That’s a good practice.

“One thing that is universally true is whatever the arrangement is, there should be clarity about who’s responsible for what. If the school district was saying they read the proposal and it wasn’t clear, then that could be an issue.”

Jenna Hodgens, the Hillsborough district’s charter schools director, did not respond last week to requests for an interview; school district offices were closed for the holidays and employees and students return today.

One of the biggest charter school companies in the nation, Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA manages 58 schools in seven states, 42 of them in Florida, including three in Hillsborough County: Henderson Hammock Charter School, Winthrop Charter School and Woodmont Elementary School.

Woodmont’s F grade from the state is another concern for the school district, though the district has had its own setbacks in school, grades: Among elementary and middle schools operated by the district, five received Fs last year compared to two the year before as student performance was measured under tougher new standards.

In addition to the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, six other nonprofit boards across the state contract with Charter Schools USA to help run their schools.

Many of the board members are longtime volunteers in their communities and some serve on multiple boards. For example, the chairman of the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, Ken Haiko, serves on three nonprofit boards that govern charter schools.

Charter school officials argue that the MacDill Charter Academy’s governance structure is clear and concise.

“Frankly, it’s really clear in the application,” said Charter Schools USA general counsel Ed Pozzuoli, who works with all the nonprofit boards that contract with the company. “We failed to understand the resistance at the school board level.”

The foundation is appealing the Hillsborough board’s decision through the state Department of Education, a process that could take several months. If the department overturns the board’s decision, the school could open in the 2015-16 school year.

Pozzuoli said MacDill representatives visited Keys Gate Charter School in Miami Dade County — a K-8 school that serves many military families and is governed by the Florida Charter Educational Foundation. Keys Gate received a C grade in 2013. It received a B in the two years before that.

Pozzuoli said the MacDill community liked the idea of a local advisory council assisting the governing board.

“The local people wanted that structure,” Pozzuoli said. “We have the best of both worlds – an experienced board and a separate board for purposes of ensuring specific local needs” are met.

In response to the MacDill application, the school district has worked to develop its own plan for serving military families better.

Legg said he was disappointed to see the MacDill school’s application fail. He said that when the Legislature convenes in March, his education committee plans to consider legislation that would support military veterans and their families.

“They make a very compelling argument that these students have unique needs,” Legg said. “I would have hoped some sort of compromise could have been reached.”

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Twitter: @ErinKTBO

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