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Florida Department of Education focuses on Hillsborough Schools following charter school decision

Posted at 5:09 AM, Jul 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-14 18:48:47-04

SEMINOLE, Fla. — The State Board of Education took swift action at its meeting Wednesday, asking the Hillsborough County School Board to comply with the law after Florida's Education Commissioner noted he found there's probable cause the Hillsborough School Board violated state statutes in its decision not to renew four charter school contracts.

Hillsborough School Board members have said they have a lot of reasons not to renew those charters, including the high turnover rate of teachers, funding concerns, and not meeting the needs of special needs students.

"Violating a student's civil rights, not implementing an education plan, that has grave concern for me," said Dr. Stacy Hahn with the Hillsborough County School Board at a meeting in mid-June.

Charter schools take about $250M in state funding from the district. That's because students who switch to charter schools take that chunk of state funding with them.

It's been a big point of contention for school board members who have spent the last year trying to climb out of massive financial problems that resulted in teacher job cuts. The district was able to avoid a state takeover of the district's finances.

"These charters are still not doing as well as public schools," said Nadia Combs, a recently-elected school board member. "So why do we continue to support them and not do a better job of educating the taxpayers?"

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to the school board after their decision not to renew the charters. It called on them to reconsider their decision and threatened serious consequences, including withholding state funding.

In his letter, Corcoran said the school district may not have followed state law and that "none of these schools are graded below a C."

However, in a special-called school board meeting on June 29, flooded with charter school advocates, the school district did not back down from their decision.

“All parents have a right to choose what school their kids go to and that should never be decided by anybody else," said Sarah Soich, a charter school parent who attended that school board meeting in June.

Instead, the district sent a response back to the Florida Department of Education that stood behind their initial choice to withhold these charter approvals.

In a memo sent on Monday, Corcoran requested that the State Board of Education find the Hillsborough County School Board violated Florida statutes and order the Hillsborough County School Board comply with the law within ten days. During the State Board of Education meeting Wednesday, the DOE laid out several issues with the non-renewal decision, including that it says notice of non-renewals weren't timely provided.

The State Board showed their support for the Commissioner's recommendation.

“I think everyone’s trying to help them get to what they’re supposed to do, and I think it was important for the full board, now we’re going to give them another ten days or so to try to do what is right," said Corcoran. "I’m an eternal optimist. I hope they do the right thing. It matters to the kids. It matters to the Hillsborough County system.”

The Hillsborough County School Board will hold a special called board meeting on Tuesday, July 20, at 8 a.m. to discuss their options moving forward. ABC Action News asked Corcoran what consequences the board might face if they don't comply.

“It’s all outlined in statute, but again, I don’t think we’re going to get there," said Corcoran. "I hope we don’t get there.”

Parents and students on both sides of the charter school debate showed up to Wednesday's meeting. Nicole Stevens is a teacher at Woodmont Charter School, one of the four charter schools impacted by the non-renewals. She says she thinks it's important parents remember they have a choice.

“We’re a family, and it’s all about what’s best for the kids, and that’s all that matters. It’s just them," said Stevens.

School Board Member Nadia Combs said the Florida Department of Education never notified the school board that this would be an item on the agenda and called it "unfair."

The district's decision to not renew the charters of four charter schools is set to go through an appeals process from those charter schools and could take several months, or even a few years, to work through.

Corcoran also heard from Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis on the district's latest financial status and economic recovery plan after they avoided state receivership of the district's finances.

For now, the financial picture of the district remains stable with the addition of COVID-19 relief money, or ESSER funds, allocated to the district. This comes after the district said they made several difficult decisions to trim the budget, including several teaching positions eliminated in the past year.