Pinellas wary of precedent with pending charter school
After weeks of discussion, Pinellas County School Board members were set to vote Tuesday on selling the abandoned Southside Fundamental Middle School building to a charter company.
A small hitch in the plans, though, opened a floodgate of concerns over selling a building to a charter school that hasn’t been approved yet.
Like most Florida school districts, Pinellas requires charter schools to have a building before they can be approved to open. But selling an abandoned school district building to a charter school before its application is approved is unheard of in the state, experts say, and raises questions about what would happen if the sale falls through or the charter application is denied. How the school district answers those questions could be used as an example for other districts facing the same problem.
“I’m swayed by the idea that we’re setting a precedent, and I really don’t like that,” said School Board member Janet Clark. “It bothers me.”
School Board members have wrestled with the precedent selling the south St. Petersburg property to K-12 charter school University Preparatory Academies could set.
School district policy requires that all charter schools have an address before they can be approved to open, but if that address was purchased from the school district itself it could raise ethical questions.
“It keeps coming back to we can’t do the charter if we don’t have an address. If they don’t have an address, we can’t approve the charter,” School Board member Rene Flowers said. “It’s something we haven’t done before … and we need to ensure that we are protected as a school board.”
The plan Tuesday was for School Board members to deem the building unnecessary for educational purposes, vote to sell the building to University Preparatory Academies for $1.1 million and then approve the school’s charter application, contingent on the successful purchase of the building.
But when the charter group’s lawyer, Guy Burns, told members of some changes the group wanted to make to the contract, such as ensuring it would only have to pay $10,000 if the sale fell through, board members decided to postpone the issue until its April 23 meeting.
“I bring items to the board for approval based on a lot of preparation, a lot of discussion, a lot of opportunities to ask questions, and this is breaking all of those,” school Superintendent Michael Grego said. “I think we’re all, including myself, uncomfortable.”
Board members ought to be sure of their decision, as it could set a precent for the school district and the state, he said.
Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools Director of Communications Lynn Norman-Teck said she has never heard of a school district selling a building to a charter school, though many, like Pinellas County, requires a charter school to have a building before its contract can be approved. Allowing charters to use abandoned school district buildings could be a beneficial idea for both parties, and others may look to the Pinellas’ decision as an example.
“Purchasing property is probably one of the biggest challenges for charter schools; however, schools are very hesitant to sign a lease if they don’t have a contract to open,” Norman-Teck said. “I think this is a great opportunity for the charter school and for the school district for revenue. It could raise some questions, but I doubt any district would approve a charter just to sell a property.”
Had the issue gone to the School Board for a vote, Linda Lerner said she would have voted against it.
“We’re looking at career centers, alternative programs, and I don’t see reason to call the building unusable before a sale is finalized,” Lerner said. “I already voted against one request that was not part of our usual process that before the sale or approval of the charter the charter school would come in and start doing abatement and doing work on the property.”
Though she was hesitant at first, School Board member Robin Wikle said her opinion changed after considering that the charter would help fulfill requirements from a 49-year-old racial integration lawsuit that requires the school district to set a goal of creating at least 500 charter seats in predominately black neighborhoods. The School Board is not in violation of the lawsuit, but critics say it will be compromised by the board’s decision to close St. Petersburg’s Imagine Charter School at the end of the school year.
“This board convinced me that that was the direction we needed to go for the benefit of students,” Wikle said. “I’m a rule follower too. I didn’t want to approve it without an address, but because of the case I thought, ‘You know what, I need to step back and let this charter agreement go through.’”