Hillsborough renews 5 more charter schools

The Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday renewed the contracts of five more privately operated charter schools, and this time only one received better than a C grade from the state.

Together, the schools are expected to serve 3,000 students in the next school year, which means $21 million in state dollars will be diverted from them. Approvals followed four votes on Feb. 8 to extend contracts at four more schools, with a combined enrollment of more than 3,000 and a cost of $28 million.

Advocates for charter schools, a booming industry in Hillsborough and beyond, note that this money follows the kids, and districts are seeing spending drop with a smaller population.

Before state leaders threatened the district with financial penalties in June for trying to close charter schools without notice, school board members were reluctant to support schools with uneven performance.

Now, on the advice of their lawyer, they are keeping schools open until they have a clear legal reason to close them.

Of the five renewals approved Tuesday, Victory K-8 and SLAM, both at Citrus Park, and BridgePrep Riverview all have state C grades. Votes were 6 to 1 to approve all three, with board member Jessica Vaughn dissenting.

Vaughn said she couldn’t understand how some of the C-rated schools had lower grades than schools run by the surrounding district, especially when charter schools often have lower percentages of students with learning difficulties. English or learning disabilities.

The vote was closer, 4-3, for Excelsior Preparatory, an F school that operates inside the University Square mall. According to minutes from Excelsior’s last board meeting, the district said it would shut down Excelsior if it won another F this year. If this happens, Excelsior will consider an appeal.

Board members Stacy Hahn and Lynn Gray asked district staff many questions about their report on Excelsior.

“I’m puzzled as to how an F school shows no nonconformity,” Hahn said. “This is a failing school and there are no concerns noted by our staff? It is not logical. How do you have a failing school and I don’t see anything to worry about here? »

Vaughn, Gray and Board Chair Nadia Combs cast the dissenting votes.

Board member Melissa Snively, often a supporter of charter schools, said there’s clearly something wrong when lower-tier charter schools are able to lure families away from schools in district classified A or B.

She asked, “What are we doing as a district, that we can control, to get these students back into traditional public education with our top performing schools just minutes away?”

The only A school on Tuesday’s agenda was Plato Academy, a third school in Citrus Park that is part of the Pinellas-based group of schools that teach Greek language and culture. Because Plato is state-designated as a high-achieving school, he was able to get a 15-year extension. The other extensions were for five years.

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Plato Academy, a charter school in Citrus Park.
Plato Academy, a charter school in Citrus Park. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Tampa Bay Times ]

Plato is unanimously approved.

At last count, more than 33,000 Hillsborough public school students attended charter schools. That’s almost 15 percent of the total enrollment.

Combs grilled Cinzia DeLange, director of charter schools in the district, on the schools’ financial and performance records. She noted, as she has done in the past, that she would like to find a way to educate parents about the strengths and weaknesses of charter schools.

“We want parents to have a choice,” she said. “But we want them to have the knowledge to make the best choice for their children.”

In other matters on Tuesday, counsel:

  • Approved a pay raise for bus drivers that will cost more than $2 million but is expected to help fill 135 driver vacancies that are making it difficult to get students to school on time. The starting hourly wage will increase from $14.57 to $16.04.
  • Voted to name her new school, a K-8 in Apollo Beach, for Dorothy Carter York. York, who died in 2012, was an author and educator for 45 years, teaching English at Blake High, Hillsborough High and Hillsborough Community College.
  • Discussed various issues regarding reading materials before approving the purchase of a $1.3 million book. Some members were concerned that the new state playlist did not have enough religious or ethnic diversity. Others are looking for ways to help parents opt out if they object to the content of a book that has been assigned to their child. Snively requested a book selection workshop. Terry Connor, the district’s director of studies, said staff are developing a plan that will notify parents of reading material at the start of the school year.

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