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Sarasota School Board discusses for-profit charter application

Written by on Saturday, February 24, 2024

But the ultimate decision may be in the state’s hands.

By Naomi Nerlien

Original Air Date: Feb. 21, 2024

Host: The regular Sarasota School Board meeting yesterday night was marked by more culture war, including a rolling billboard parked in front of the board chambers, targeting sex scandal-ridden conservative board member Bridget Ziegler. But the most substantial discussion happened during a work session earlier that day. WSLR News reporter Naomi Nerlien has the details on a for-profit charter school application.

Naomi Nerlien: The Sarasota Classical Preparatory Academy was the main topic on the agenda of the Tuesday work session. Representing the charter school proposal linked to for-profit Charter Schools USA, Valora Cole, Randolph Walker, and Eric Johnson fielded the questions from school board members.

The first issue brought up by board member Robyn Marinelli was the physical location of the new school. A property currently used by a private school, The Classical Academy of Sarasota, on Fruitville Road east of I-75 is the new school’s proposed location. Neighbors have expressed concern over expanded use of that property.

Robyn Marinelli: What’s the location? And is the current private school on that location? And help me understand how that’s going to work, please.

Valora Cole: So, the location I’m going to look at is what we put in the application, I know it is currently going through entitlement. And no, my understanding is, the private school is not going to be on that same location.

RM: Well that’s, I think, it’s still questionable because the county commission hasn’t approved that land use. So that’s why I’m gonna need to be prepared for that, because that’s out of our hands.

VC: Right. I don’t think that’s part of the application requirements. Sometimes, when you bring a charter application, you don’t even have a land location. When we’ve dropped charter applications in other districts, we don’t even know where we want to drop it, but we haven’t purchased, or the board hasn’t purchased, the land yet, or they haven’t leased that property yet. So that is going through, as you said, a separate process that’s independent from this one.

NN: The executives said that the current school would move to a location off Bee Ridge Road, once the state approves the switch in land ownership.

Superintendent Terrence Connor raised concerns about projected enrollment. The application projects opening in August 2025 with 100 kindergarteners. However, there are not 100 kindergarteners in the six-mile radius of the school’s proposed property.

Meanwhile, Tom Edwards – who expressed his concerns about this project in an interview on WSLR’s The Detail show last week – said he didn’t like the short time window before the vote, and the lack of timely information made available to the board and the public.

Tom Edwards: Listen, I want to make sure I start by saying that I’m an advocate of school choice. I want to make sure that’s very clear. But I also have fiduciary responsibility to the constituents, and to make sure that our decisions are sound. So I don’t mean to sound difficult, but I’m still uncomfortable. If you don’t have a location, you’re asking us to imagine. I think you allude to Mrs. Rose’s question about the math, that that depends on whatever happens and that we make those decisions in May. And yet I’m being asked to make a decision in March, and you haven’t finalized your plans, and you haven’t finalized where you’re going to be. And so that’s this is where [the school board attorney] comes into play. We have 90 days from March 13. Also, for complete transparency, I had a conversation with Mr. Connor. I am distressed is a mild word that we had this application in December and I didn’t find out about it until Tuesday. And then a 600-page document arrived on my emails on Thursday, and on Monday the school district was closed. So in terms of really doing my job and really diving into that document, I don’t feel like I’ve been given an appropriate amount of time. And I’m being rushed into March 5. 

NN: The board must review and then approve, or deny all charter applications within 90 calendar days. An extension was requested but denied by the applicant, meaning the board must move forward.

With these concerns and others such as staffing, a lack of local representatives, and private business involvement with a publicly funded entity, the board has a difficult decision to make on March 5.

However, whatever the school board decides in March, the ultimate decision seems to be out of its hands.

A recently passed state law, HB 1, takes that power away from local boards and makes the Florida Department of Education the last arbiter of any for-profit 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.

In addition to that, the law now stipulates that, if the state finds the application passes muster, the school district would have to pay the applicant’s legal expenses.

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

This has been Naomi Nerlien, reporting for WSLR News. Johannes Werner contributed to this report.


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