Joyce Marie Taylor
South Hamilton Elementary was filled Wednesday, April 4, with teachers, parents and the charter school governing board, along with Hamilton County Superintendent Martha Butler, Assistant Superintendent Rex Mitchell, and school board members Johnny Bullard and Damon Deas to learn more about the charter school conversion process from Polk County experts.
The ballot process to determine if the majority of teachers, (only 12 are qualified to vote) and parents approve converting SHE into a charter school is set to begin Tuesday, April 17 and end on Tuesday, April 24.
“I wanted my entire staff to come in, if at all possible, to share in this,” SHE Principal Maceo Howell said. “No matter what happens, we really need to know what charter schools are all about.”
On hand from Polk County School District, Office of Charter Schools were Sr. Director of Magnet and Charter Schools Carolyn Bridges and School Choice Specialist Carla McMullen, who shared their expertise about charter schools in two separate meetings; one for the teachers at 3 p.m. and the other for parents at 6 p.m.
Bridges has about 15 years charter school experience and did most of the talking. Polk County, she said, has 23 charter schools and at least seven more are projected to open next year. She stated the laws governing charter schools are constantly changing. When asked at the parent meeting about the reasons for the growth of charter schools in Polk County, Bridges acknowledged that cost savings were a major reason. She also said Polk County was saving millions of dollars every year with charter schools.
Before voting yes or no on a charter school, Bridges said, teachers and parents should feel confident they know the specifics of the charter document, especially pay and benefits, and whether or not available finances can fund the school.
“You need to protect yourselves in this process,” she said to the teachers. “If you're going to be a charter school teacher, the numbers are going to be really, really important to you.”
The teachers' biggest concern was that they had not seen the charter documents yet, in order to know what they were being offered. Another concern, if they voted no on the charter, was not knowing if they would still have a job if SHE closes and students and staff are moved to Central Hamilton Elementary, because it's already been stated that some positions will be eliminated if the two schools merge.
Butler told the teachers she didn't think any of them had to worry about job security if they voted no on the charter, although she couldn't assure they would be teaching the same grade and curriculum as they are now.
Teacher David Law said many parents will not be sending their children to CHE if SHE closes.
After much teacher discussion and vented feelings of frustration about their future, Mitchell interjected the district feels the same way because there are so many unanswered questions.
Bridges said she was impressed at how impassioned the teachers were about their school, their students and their community, and she encouraged them to continue asking questions.
“Your passion is admirable,” said Bridges.
If the charter is approved, Bridges recommended that teachers go on leave if they want to teach at the charter school, rather than resign from the district, in order to protect their sick pay and other benefits.
“You can always resign later on,” she said.
The ins and outs of charter schools
Because charter schools are independent they must be able to handle the business and operational end of the school, Bridges went on.
“You really want to be sure that come March you're actually getting paid and that the lights are on in your building,” Bridges said.
A charter school has to be fiscally able to exist and function in order to be approved, and they must submit a five-year budget with their application, Bridges said. If the conversion charter is approved, the district is obligated to give them the building and its contents at the time of conversion. They also have to reasonably maintain the building, but that is done through a maintenance contract with the district that the charter school would have to pay for. Charter schools are also responsible for handling transportation of students, whether they do it on their own or work out a contract with the district office. They also have to provide food service for students and health benefits for employees.
Students can opt out of attending the charter school and their transportation to another school in the district will be the responsibility of the district, Bridges said.
If a district has no charter policy in place, it defaults to the state policy, which says the application has to be submitted on or before August 1 in order for the charter school to open for the following school year. In SHE's case, Bridges said, if they submit by this August then they could open as a charter school in the fall of 2013.
Once the application is submitted, the district has 60 days to review it and either approve or deny the application. If it is denied, the charter school governing board can appeal the decision with the DOE.
“The state board's ruling is final,” Bridges said.
Some concerned over non-transparency
During the parents meeting, someone stated they had not seen the proposed charter school document yet. SHE Charter School Governing Board member Shawna Adams-Farries said that the application was ready for review and that any teacher or parent who wished to review it could contact their consultant, Shining Star Academy of the Arts Principal Anthony Buzzella.
“It will also be at the public library as well,” Adams-Farries said.
Another option for SHE students
Once the second meeting ended, members of the SHE charter school governing board conferred with Buzzella. Since many parents have openly stated they will not send their children to CHE if SHE is closed, Buzzella presented an option to the governing board, stating that his charter school in Columbia County has 150 open slots and if need be he could accept all SHE students next school year if they are forced to wait the full year in order to complete the conversion process. Should that happen, all those district student dollars would leave Hamilton County and follow the students into Columbia County.
In a previous interview with White Springs Mayor Helen Miller, she stated, “We do acknowledge that we didn't submit this before August 1 (last year), but the people in this community felt that since South Hamilton got an A that it would be a positive thing. The community, the town, and the parents and teachers felt like their school was being rewarded for the good work it had made and that it would continue.”
Miller continued, “If the charter application meets all the criteria, the school board has the authority to approve it on its merits, rather than lengthening the approval process. They could approve it in several months, as opposed to a year.”
Bridges agreed with this assessment when asked a direct question during the parent meeting.
Miller said that closing SHE was not one of the three options that were given to the school district on Aug. 19, 2011 from the DOE in order to get Central out of intervene status for getting an F grade two years in a row. The three options were: 1) Reassign students and monitor progress. 2) Close and reopen as a charter school. 3) Contract with a private entity to run the school.
The Aug. 19, 2011 letter from former Chancellor of Public Schools, Dr. Michael Grego, specifically states, “the district must choose from these three remaining options and submit plans to the Department.”
Miller said that the reassigning of students referred specifically to Central, not South. “Furthermore, the school board's vote to close South violated Section 163.31777 of the Florida Statute termed ‘Public schools interlocal agreement.’” said Miller.
She referred to Item (2) of Sec. 163.31777 which calls for at a minimum, a) a process by which each local government and the district school board agree and base their plans on consistent projections of the amount, type, and distribution of population growth and student enrollment; b) a process to coordinate and share information relating to existing and planned public school facilities, including school renovations and closures, and local government plans for development and redevelopment, and c) participation by affected local governments with the district school board in the process of evaluating potential school closures, significant renovations to existing schools, and new school site selection before land acquisition.
The state statute requires that the school district enter into an interlocal agreement with the county commission and each of the local governments. In Hamilton County, this resulted in the Interlocal Agreement for Public School Facility Planning by and between Board of County Commissioners, City Council of Jasper, Town Council of Jennings, Town Council of White Springs, and the School Board of Hamilton County, Florida.
Miller stated both the state statute and the Hamilton County interlocal agreement were violated when the school board voted 3-2 to close SHE.
“It is a fact that the town of White Springs did not participate in any way with the HCSB in the process, which led to the school board vote to close SHE," said Miller.
On Oct. 24, 2011, HCSB held a special public session and voted 5-0 to close CHE and transfer all students to SHE if CHE fails to successfully exit intervene status. Three months later, on Jan. 17, 2012, HCSB held a town hall meeting in Jasper where Butler announced she would recommend to the board that SHE be closed and students be bussed to CHE, if CHE doesn't exit intervene status at the end of this school year. One week later, on Jan. 24, 2012, Butler recommended, and the school board voted 3-2, to close SHE and relocate SHE students to CHE at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.