TAMPA — Four months after the Hillsborough County school board denied an application for a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base, the district is raising questions about who’s in charge at three other schools operated by the company that proposed it, Charter Schools USA.
Those calling the shots at Henderson Hammock, Winthrop and Woodmont charter schools are from out of town, a violation of their contracts with the school board, district charter school director Jenna Hodgens said.
State law doesn’t require local control of charter schools, which are public schools operated privately, but it does give school districts wide latitude to establish their own conditions.
“We feel strongly about a local board,” Hodgens said. “Other districts don’t push the issue, but we do.”
Officials with Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA insist their Hillsborough schools are locally controlled.
The dispute comes as state lawmakers are debating whether to create a standard charter school contract for use in each of Florida’s 67 school districts. The House measure recently passed the Education Committee.
Sponsor Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, says the proposal would streamline the process of creating a charter school. Opponents say it would take authority from school districts and hamper negotiations.
“It puts the district in a really bad place because I don’t know how we would negotiate,” Hodgens said. “There would be no negotiations. You negotiate after the point and you can’t hold them up from opening. I don’t see that as a feasible way of doing a contract.”
The bill also includes language that would allow charter school board members who live outside a county to participate in meetings via conference call, which Hodgens also takes issue with. State law now calls for charter school boards to meet within their school district twice each year.
“It’s important to have somebody who’s available, accessible, local for them to understand the needs of the community,” Hodgens said.
In the Senate, a watered-down version of the House bill could stymie efforts to require the standard contract.
The bill, passed April 9 by a subcommittee, arises from the MacDill dispute and is limited to charter schools on military bases. It would give military commanders a role in opening a charter school by allowing them to sit on governing boards and submit applications.
The main provisions of this bill are law already, as part of another measure — the “Florida GI Bill” — that Gov. Rick Scott signed last month.
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One of the nation’s biggest charter school operators, Charter Schools USA manages 58 schools in seven states, 42 of them in Florida.
In December, the Hillsborough district denied what would have been the county’s fourth Charter Schools USA campus, MacDill Charter Academy. The school board voted to reject the application after district staff said it was unclear who would call the shots at the school.
Decisions would have been made by the nonprofit Florida Charter Educational Foundation, also based in Fort Lauderdale. The foundation would contract with Charter Schools USA to handle day-to-day operations.
The same nonprofit is the charter holder for Henderson Hammock Charter School, 10322 Henderson Road in Tampa. The school is in its second year and received a grade of C from the Florida Department of Education.
Foundation Chairman Ken Haiko argues that a separate Hillsborough nonprofit group, Bay Area Charter Foundation, serves as an advisory council for Henderson Hammock, fulfilling the local control requirement.
“We hope this clarifies any confusion you may have,” Haiko wrote in a letter to Hodgens on March 31.
The Bay Area Charter Foundation is officially the charter holder for the other two schools operated by Charter Schools USA — Winthrop Charter School in Riverview and Temple Terrace’s Woodmont.
All the board members live in Hillsborough or Pasco counties, Ron Jurado, chairman of the Bay Area Charter Foundation, wrote to Hodgens April 2.
Still, Hodgens has questions about what role the board members play in school decisions.
“What they created gives the illusion of a local board,” she said. “The local boards, which seem to have contracts with us, aren’t really the decision-makers. It appears they have local people, but if you look at the documents about the organization, the actual board would be out-of-county people.”
Hodgens sent a letter to Haiko on March 4 requesting a meeting to discuss the issues. There have been more letters and a phone call, but she’s still waiting for the foundation to respond to her request to meet.
“I really would like us to work through this,” Hodgens said.
Winthrop is a B school and Woodmont is an F, which has been a concern for the school district. Both are in their third year.
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On top of the questions about governance, Woodmont last month was hit by complaints from a former teacher to the Hillsborough school district and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Tammy Gilmore alleges that some teachers at the school are not certified, that students are promoted to the next grade even if they fail, and that she was fired without reason in March.
“The students are not getting the education they need and are being pushed through the system,” Gilmore wrote in an email to the school district.
Gilmore, 40, accuses the school of discrimination and says she was fired due to her race, gender, age and disability.
Hodgens said the district is looking into the allegations.
Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman in Fort Myers for Woodmont and for the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, said she could not discuss Gilmore or her complaints.
“It is important, however, to be clear that to our knowledge, all of our teachers meet the proper certification requirements by the district and the state,” Reynolds wrote in an email. “We continue to work with the district to clear up any concerns and are confident that all questions will be answered fully and satisfactorily.”