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Thursday, Dec 14, 2017
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Pinellas votes 7-0 to help sue Legislature over new law favoring charter schools

LARGO — They said they had no choice but to do it. They said they would rather reach a compromise.

But Pinellas County school officials nevertheless moved ahead Tuesday with their long-discussed plans to join a lawsuit challenging a controversial education bill that, critics say, unfairly favors charter schools.

The School Board voted unanimously to join the suit and contribute $25,000 to the fight, becoming the 12th Florida school district — and the only one in the Tampa Bay area — to do so.

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While the idea of suing the Legislature over the law, known as House Bill 7069, has been a hot topic across the state, it has scarcely been discussed among school officials in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.

Pinellas has taken the lead locally in part because it stands to lose a significant amount of funding under a portion of the law that requires districts to share construction and maintenance money with charter schools. A new state formula distributes the money in part based on a school district's debt load, and Pinellas officials contend that's not fair to districts like theirs that have borrowed relatively little.

"I have been very proud of Pinellas County and our work on the board that has kept us out of debt," veteran board member Carol Cook said before Tuesday's vote. "And to then be penalized for it is one of the things that irritated me most with all of this."

The board also takes issue with language in the law that does not require charters to apply to their local school boards when opening "Schools of Hope" near struggling traditional schools. That erodes local control or "home rule" over education matters, board members say.

"It's the home rule issue I find to be extremely important to attack right now, because if we don't, it will continue to erode our authority," said board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea.

Cook noted that, with its vote, Pinellas is stipulating that it will pull out of the lawsuit if legislators address the district's concerns and amend the law.

"They said they were willing to do things to fix it," she said. "I would like to believe that that would happen, but I'm not willing to put all my eggs in that basket."

The district was "painted somewhat into a corner to follow this path to a lawsuit," said school superintendent Mike Grego. "There's tremendous resources taken from our children … diverted to other places."

At a board workshop earlier in the day, Grego said he had drafted a document with proposed solutions, "so our district is viewed as not only going into litigation and supporting it," but also interested in developing common ground. He plans to share it with local legislators and other superintendents.

Pinellas has proposed a formula to allocate construction and maintenance funds for charter schools based on square footage. It would give Pinellas charters $1.26 million, as opposed to the $5 million called for under the new law.

Cook said she appreciated the brainstorming session to avoid suing. But, in the end, the board voted to press ahead. School Board attorney David Koperski said the districts that have signed on so far have pooled about $230,000.

Pinellas' $25,000 share will come from proceeds from sale of scrap and obsolete equipment, rental agreements with for-profit entities and funds from beverage vending sales at non-student sites.

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Koperski said he expects a lawsuit to be filed by Halloween. With its vote on Tuesday, Pinellas joins the school districts of Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Orange, Duval, St. Lucie, Volusia, Lee, Bay, Hamilton and Polk.

The Alachua County School Board was scheduled to vote Tuesday evening on whether to join the lawsuit.

Grego said he informed Hillsborough schools superintendent Jeff Eakins that Pinellas would move forward on the lawsuit, "so he wasn't surprised."

Cook speculated that the larger district across the bay has not yet joined in because it is mired in other issues.

The Hillsborough School Board is planning a workshop next week to discuss the state law and whether the district should join in the lawsuit.

Pinellas board member Terry Krassner has her own theory on why Pasco hasn't moved on the lawsuit, noting that Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, who championed HB 7069, lives in that county. His wife operates a charter school there, too.

Board member Joanne Lentino said those districts will benefit from Pinellas' fight, even if they don't participate.

"You take care of your colleagues," she said. "It's the democratic way."

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