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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Pinellas board reluctantly OKs virtual academy

LARGO — Florida Virtual Academy at Pinellas County Charter School got the OK from Pinellas County School Board members Tuesday to become the school district’s first virtual charter school. But that doesn’t mean board members are happy about it.

A five-year charter school agreement with Florida Virtual Academy was unanimously approved during Tuesday’s board meeting, but school board members voiced concerns about the company that will operate the new charter, K12 Inc. The publicly-traded, for-profit, online education company, headquartered in Herndon, Va., has been the subject of media scrutiny in recent years for claims that the company has spent millions in taxpayer dollars on advertising and misrepresented information about schools’ academic successes.

“There have been ongoing problematic situations with K12 ... and I hope the responsible board will stop these practices,” said board vice chairwoman Linda Lerner. “I will reluctantly vote for this, very reluctantly, but I think that we try to follow all of our charter schools, and I think this one we should follow very, very closely.”

K12 Inc. is the nation’s largest online education provider, yet the company was the subject of several investigations by the Florida Department of Education and others for how it spends taxpayer money, hires teachers and reports student achievement.

“In the future, I would like to know how much of Pinellas tax dollars are being spent on advertising,” Lerner said.

The school board members said they were “uncomfortable,” and “very concerned” with the new charter, but board member Janet Clark said because the application yielded no grounds to deny the charter, their “hands are tied.”

The school board had no choice but to approve the charter because it meets state requirements outlined in the Florida Charter School Application Evaluation Instrument, said board member Terry Krassner. The law also states that the school district provide three virtual school options for students. Currently, the school district provides its own virtual school to students and the Florida Virtual School.

The charter school won’t have a physical building located in Pinellas County, but will operate and take attendance with an electronic process that most districts have found very successful, Clark said. The application for Florida Virtual Academy Charter School was first submitted in July 2012, but took longer than usual to negotiate because there were a number of areas where the charter only partially met the state’s requirements.

Once the school reaches full enrollment of 592 kindergarten through 12th-graders, it will reduce school district funds by an estimated $3,482,351. The estimated cumulative financial impact over the contract period is $13,573,824, according to the school district.

“If I were sitting here as a private business owner deciding whether or not to do business with this academy I would say absolutely not,’” said school board member Robin Wikle. “However, I’m not. I’m a board member with strings and government mandates, so I’m just really happy that Pinellas County School District has a charter school district staff that’s going to hold our charter schools accountable and to remember that it’s not about the profit, it’s about the main thing being our students.”

Members of Florida Virtual Academy at Pinellas County’s operating board could not be reached for comment.

“This took a little bit longer to negotiate, as sometimes is the case, but this is the first virtual charter that’s been approved in Pinellas ... and this is still a new thing for the state of Florida,” said Daniel Woodring, attorney for Florida Virtual Academy, at the meeting. “We think we have a good agreement and we hope we can have an excellent charter and good partnership with the district as we move forward.”

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