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Hillsborough County School Board Stands Firm On Charter School Decision

A woman with blond hair talks into a small microphone
Hillsborough Schools TV
Board Member Melissa Snively proposed heeding the recommendation of Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to change course or "face serious consequences." She was the only member of the board to originally vote in favor of the charter school contracts.

The school board did not reverse its decision to not renew four charter school contracts, despite pressure from the state’s education commissioner.

The Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday stood by its decision to not renew the contracts of four of the district’s charter schools.

The board met primarily to discuss its 2022 legislative priorities, but more than 200 community members attended to hear how the board would address a stern letter they received from Florida's Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran last week.

The letter stated that the board's vote to deny the renewal of Kid’s Community College Charter School, Pivot Charter School, SouthShore Charter Academy, and Woodmont Charter School earlier this month “appears to be contrary to law” because the schools were not given enough notice.

Corcoran noted the June 15 board decision came 56 days before two of the schools — SouthShore and Woodmont — were set to reopen. He claimed that goes against Florida statutes requiring a 90-day notice period prior to the end of the charter’s term.

But Jim Porter, the school board’s attorney, said the decision was made legally.

"There's no precedent for it, we've never had this happen in Hillsborough County before with non-renewals,” Porter said at a morning workshop held before the board meeting.

“We've never had a letter from the Commissioner of Education asking that you overturn a decision you made legally."

Corcoran gave the school board a deadline of 5 p.m. Tuesday to either renew the charter school contracts or provide “every factual and legal justification” for their decision not to. He threatened to withhold state funds to the district if they did not comply.

The board responded by doubling down on their decision not to renew the contracts.

"There's no board action needed at this point,” Porter said. “But we felt it was important for you all to understand that we are responding to the letter from the Commissioner of Education, and that we will be sending out the letters to the charters that (the board) chose not to renew."

Under Florida law, the school board has 90 days from the original vote — not the end of the school’s term — to provide reasons for denial.

Cinzia DeLange, the county’s supervisor of charter schools, sent letters to each of the four non-renewed schools Tuesday outlining the board’s reasons for denying each.

They included problems related to large class sizes, poor academic records, failing to provide ESE education to all eligible students, and financial difficulties.

The charters may appeal if they choose, and can remain open until then. The for-profit companies that manage the affected charter schools could also sue the district over the decision.

“We anticipate that some of the denials and the non-renewals will be appealed, and to that end, we really caution you to be very thoughtful about making any statements,” Porter said to board members.

“At this point, your statements on the record at the board meeting really serve as the board's reasoning for denying or not renewing the charters. And at this point, because we are anticipating appeals and perhaps litigation, it's better to be very cautious.”

Despite the warning, Board Member Melissa Snively consistently spoke out in support of the charter schools. She was the only member who initially voted against the non-renewals, arguing that parents should be allowed to make choices for their children.

At the Tuesday morning workshop before the meeting, she raised a motion to reverse the decision. It was not seconded by any other board members.

She was successful, however, in pushing through a motion for public comment to happen at the special-called workshop despite concerns from other board members about the lack of communication beforehand.

Typically, public comment is not allowed at workshops.

“I had several constituents reach out to me as well to ask if there would be public comment at this meeting today. I was told no,” Board Member Jessica Vaughn said.

“So I don't think it's necessarily fair to have public comment for some people who showed up, and not for others who were not advised that there would be public comment at this meeting.”

“In the case of a special-called board meeting, there's always the possibility that public comment could occur,” Snively replied.

“And so when constituents asked me if there's going to be public comment, I did tell them that there's not a sign up for public comment. However, there is a possibility that if someone were to make a motion, we would hear public comment.”

Every public comment given at the morning meeting was in favor of charter schools. Many called for the board to reverse their decision.

The move angered charter school opponents, who spoke during the board’s standard meeting later Tuesday.

“Community voices are being taken away,” parent Paula Castano said. “We saw that this morning when the meeting was changed and none of us knew on the opposing side that we could come speak and also give our comments alongside the comments from the people this morning.”

Charter school opponents thanked the board for standing by its decision.

Jacob Wentz is the inaugural WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2021.