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MacDill charter school backers pull out of appeals process

TALLAHASSEE – The backers of a charter school for MacDill Air Force Base withdrew their appeal to the state to overturn the Hillsborough County School Board’s recent decision rejecting their application.

“Our goal is to serve the needs of students of our military families as efficiently as possible,” Florida Charter Educational Foundation President Ken Haiko said in a news release Thursday. “To achieve that goal, we decided that the best course of action is to make some minor revisions to the application and resubmit it.”

The withdrawal came on the same day that a state Senate committee advanced a measure giving Florida education authorities a bigger role in dealing with requests for charter schools on military bases — now largely the responsibility of local school districts.

The MacDill request was part of the discussion in Tallahassee, centered on a brief provision of a 39-page amendment to a larger military-related measure.

“This amendment, as I indicated, does not affect the MacDill situation,” said state Sen. Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican who filed the amendment.

If the amendment passes, though, questions remain over whether it would apply to any new request from the MacDill school’s backers.

How the amendment would affect local authority over charter-school review was the subject of debate Thursday.

On one side, Democrats in the Senate argued the language would give the state’s top education official the ability to approve charter schools on military bases without the approval of local school districts.

Supporters, on the other hand, said the language was simply intended to “encourage” Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to work with military bases to offer students more choices.

“There is compelling state interest in assisting military families in the development and learning opportunities for their children,” Richter said.

The Hillsborough School Board unanimously voted in December to stick with Superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s recommendation to deny the MacDill charter school application because of concerns over the school’s proposed governance structure.

Day-to-day operations would be run by Charter Schools USA. The Florida Charter Educational Foundation would be the oversight authority, with a MacDill council advising.

The board’s decision was supported by a state appeals panel. The state Board of Education was poised to make its final ruling March 18.

“Our proposal is still solid as it stands but if a few clarifications will help the process go more smoothly, in the end, the students will benefit and that’s our focus,” Haiko said in the news release.

The foundation plans to resubmit its revised application “in the very near future.”

The district’s deadline for potential charter operators to submit their applications to open schools in the 2015-16 school year is Aug. 1. Letters of intent are due July 1.

During the committee discussion Thursday, Senate Democrats were wary.

“It seems to give the commissioner of education the ability to establish a charter school on a military base,” said state Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, accepted Richter’s assurance that his amendment would not have affected the MacDill appeals process. Still, Joyner opposed the amendment.

State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said he did not think an elected school board should be elbowed-out of the process.

“It is like if we make decision here and someone overrules us,” said Montford, who is also the CEO of the Florida Association of District Superintendents Association.

Richter’s amendment was filed Wednesday, the same day an op-ed was published in The Tampa Tribune by Stephen Mitchell, a member of the MacDill Advisory Education Council. Mitchell said the base needed a charter school to “address the significant stresses and social issues that our military children experience by virtue of the numerous moves.”

The underlying legislation — SB 860, submitted through the Senate Appropriations Committee — includes several military-related provisions, including: expanding a tuition assistance program for National Guard members, creating a Florida Veterans’ Walk of Honor and Memorial Garden at the state Capitol, and creating funding to promote Florida to retired veterans, among other things.

It passed on a 19-0 vote, and now heads to the Senate floor.

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