Live Oak —
The Suwannee County School Board voted unanimously 5-0 to deny the applications of two proposed charter schools Tuesday night at their regular monthly meeting.
Dianne Westcott, founder of Achieve High School, and Andrew Lang, founder of North Florida Collegiate High School, turned in their applications by Aug. 1 with anticipation to open their doors for the 2014 school year. However, since their applications were denied, the next step in moving forward is to appeal the board’s decision to the state department of education. Lang has stated he will appeal the board’s decision while Westcott said she is undecided.
Deb Metheny served as a consultant to the board regarding the charter school’s applications and to guide the charter review committee. Metheny told the board Tuesday night the steps the committee took to determine their recommendation.
A committee was formed of 13 school and district staff who met to review each section of the application.
“It was a very, very deliberate process. None of the members of the charter review committee took it lightly,” Metheny said.
Former School District Director of Special Programs Cheryl Mae Brinson addressed the board supporting Achieve High School.
“Achieve High School proposes to serve at-risk students using the state’s exit option program, formerly administered by Dianne Westcott,” Brinson said. “As state records reflect, during her administration (as principal of Suwannee-Hamilton Technical Center), the program had a 90 percent graduation rate. Last year, unfortunately, Suwannee County lost 60 students at Suwannee High School, or $360,000 to home school.”
Brinson noted the exit option program is currently available for students in 37 districts in Florida.
“The district’s unwillingness to provide this program creates an extensive pipeline for dropouts,” she said. “We want to serve these children.”
Westcott stood before the board asking them to consider her proposal for Achieve High School.
“I’m concerned about the message the board is sending to the community about our drop-out situation,” Westcott said. “It behooves us to find reasonable options to help these students get a high school diploma.”
Westcott, who is experienced with the exit out program, said it was successful in providing those forced out of the school system or those who left on their own a second chance to get a high school diploma.
In a letter from Superintendent of Schools Jerry Scarborough to Westcott, Scarborough pointed out her application was predicated on the district having an approved GED exit option program. Scarborough further stated the district has no obligation to submit an application for a program for a charter school applicant, according to Westcott.
“We offered to do the paperwork and the reporting since members of our board have previous experience in this area and do not intend to burden the board or the school system,” Westcott said. “If the charter school does not provide this program, then please, you do it.”
Andrew Lang spoke on behalf of North Florida Collegiate High School. Lang addressed the board concerning community support for the charter school and the legal aspect of the application.
“I think the people want this school,” Lang said. “I think if you talk to people, they will say having another choice as a tax payer is not a bad thing.”
Lang said he has over 200 petitions signed by registered Suwannee County voters who support the proposed charter school.
Lang said when he was notified the charter school would be denied, he then sent an eight page rebuttal to the reasons for denial that were provided by Scarborough.
“I’ve been very frustrated throughout this review process. It has been frustrating because every turn I try to come in a spirit of collaboration. I want you to make me better. That’s a fact. I’m trying to make the system better as well,” Lang said.
“When I asked about if I could have comments and critiques of my application to simply clarify, not adjust, not go against the rules, I’ve been told that wasn’t permitted. Even clarification was not permitted. I could not be told what standard I did not meet and why. What’s really frustrating is I was never given a clear standard I have to pass,” he said.
Lang told the board he was not trying to compete with Suwannee High School, he was simply providing an option for the students who feel misplaced in the big school setting.
“It’s not better, it’s not worse. It’s just something different for the people who need it,” Lang said.
“I do feel like my application meets the criteria, I’m really not going to stop fighting this fight. I hope you can respect that,” Lang said.
Attorney John Joyce, representing Lang, told the board they will continue to advocate for the school if denied.
“This is not the end of our process. This is not the end of the advocacy for this high school. Of course, there is the appeal if you vote in denial. Of course, there’s next year, too. Rest assured, we will be back next year if this application is denied,” Joyce said. “Mr. Lang is going to get this school as a matter of when, not as a matter of if.”
School Board chairman Jerry Taylor told the audience a workshop was held on Oct. 8 to discuss the charter school applications.
“This has been a long process. It’s been a very detailed process,” Taylor said. “This is the third time we’re addressing this issue.”
He continued, “One thing that resonates with me very strongly is the passion. But I think it all comes back to one thing and that’s the process.”
“There’s a big difference between not wanting something done and wanting something done correctly so it’s successful,” said board member Julie Ulmer. “I don’t think anyone up here doesn’t want it done just for the fact. I think it’s our obligation to make sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed.”
Janene Fitzpatrick, director of curriculum and instruction for Suwannee County schools, then read the agenda item and awaited a vote from the board. The board voted unanimously 5-0 to deny both charter school applications.