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From The Detail with Cathy Antunes: Sarasota School Board will discuss for-profit charter

Written by on Saturday, February 17, 2024

The final decision on the controversial application now rests with the state, though.

By Cathy Antunes and Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Feb. 16, 2024

Host: On Tuesday, the Sarasota school board will discuss a charter school application that is the first in this county under a new Florida law that seems to open up the state to broader privatization of K-12 schooling and for-profit businesses entering the system. Ahead of the discussion, one school board member expressed his concern.

Johannes Werner: Bridget Ziegler has been in the harsh spotlight of three consecutive school board sessions. In the next session on Tuesday, a for-profit charter school application may give the controversial board member a bit of relief and take center stage. However, whatever the school board discusses and decides, the ultimate outcome seems to be out of its hands.

A recently passed state law, HB 1, takes that power away from local boards and makes the state Department of Education the last arbiter of any charter school application. If Sarasota rejects the application, and the school operator appeals, it could be Manny Diaz, the current commissioner of education, who puts his finger on the scale. Diaz also happens to be a former executive of the state’s biggest for-profit operator of schools.

A 613-page application for a “Sarasota Classical Preparatory Academy” will be before the board at the workshop preceding the regular meeting on Tuesday. The material was posted yesterday.

The same day, school board member Tom Edwards appeared on The Detail, the show on WSLR hosted by Cathy Antunes. He explained that there is not enough time for board members and the public to appropriately vet the application. Show host Antunes then suggested the vote should be postponed. Here is how Edwards responded.

Tom Edwards

Tom Edwards: We had this application in December, right? It should have been a heads-up that came to all school board members — not just me, all school board members — so that we can, in fact, do our due diligence. Before we go into the actual nitty-gritty of the application, I will tell you that I believe in school choice. I believe in public charters that work in tandem with our school district. And we have successful ones in the county. So I’m not opposed to charter schools in general. I am opposed to the fact that the legislature has been stacking the deck for the types of charter schools like Charter School USA that’s specific here. That’s a charter school for profit, number one, which to me is in conflict with the best possible education for students. If somebody’s paying attention to a bottom line and a profit so that people earn dollars and cents, whether it’s shareholders or owners of schools, that to me is a conflict.

Edwards, who calls himself the only moderate school board member, is running for re-election.

The game is stacked against the school board anyway, Edwards said.

TE: The way that the legislature has it set up right now is that, if for some reason the school district and this board determines that this is not the best application for Sarasota, then what would happen is Charter School USA could go back to … Manny Diaz, who has a conflict of interest, having been involved in charter schools for profit in his previous life, and they could appeal to that board. And that board could override the Sarasota County School Board. And guess what even happens beyond that? The school district would have to pay the legal fees for Charter Schools USA’s appeal if their appeal was victorious. So that means that the school district has a disincentive to deny anyone, because if it gets appealed to the state, then they could lose. Which looks like the deck is stacked against them to lose, and having to pay additional monies, and take monies out of the classroom that they’re already trying to protect.

Protest flyer ahead of a school board vote in 2022 on a Charter School USA application at Wellen Park. The board first denied the application and then reversed itself last year.

JW: This application is the second from the same operator. Last year, the school board granted the first one to the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, a non-profit that owns a dozen schools in Florida run by for-profit Charter Schools USA. Reversing itself, the school board approved the application for a K-12 school at Wellen Park in North Port. It did so after rejecting that application the year before. And now, the same operators want to open a school on Fruitville Road, east of I-75.

Charter schools are taxpayer funded and therefore tuition-free. Charter Schools USA would be paid and seeks profit mostly from taxpayer funding.

The school board is scheduled to vote on this March 5.

This has been Johannes Werner for WSLR News. Thank you to Cathy Antunes for sharing the interview. To listen to the entire show, go to wslr.org, click on “archive” and look for the most recent edition of The Detail with Cathy Antunes.


WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.