A Florida school board has denied the application for a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, even as board members said they support the military families it would serve.

Stacy White

Stacy White

“I would very much like to see MacDill have their charter school one day,” said Hillsborough County School Board member Stacy White, who was among the unanimous vote to reject the school.

“We are at odds about the governance,” added fellow board member Doretha Edgecomb. “But we are not at odds about doing our very best for our students and their families.”

District Superintendent MaryEllen Elia made the final recommendation to the board to deny the proposal, following staff concerns that the application didn’t explain clearly who was in charge of the school. She said she wanted to work with the base, the home of U.S. Central Command, and called for a task force to study concerns that prompted the push for a charter.

“The long-standing working relationship we’ve had with MacDill is important,” she said, noting the district already provides services to military families through an A-rated elementary school located on the base. “I think clearly we need to work to resolve these issues to move forward.”

Supporters of the charter school said they plan to meet and discuss the possibility of appealing to the state Board of Education. In Florida, school boards serve as authorizers of charter schools in their districts, but the law allows the Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor, to overturn denials.

“I think quite frankly that the superintendent has shown this has become a turf war,” said Ken Haiko, chairman of the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, a nonprofit volunteer board which applied for the charter.

He called some of Hillsborough’s concerns “ludicrous” and said they demonstrate the district’s weak arguments against the charter. “Our application is clear that the Florida Charter Educational Foundation is the applicant and charter holder,” he wrote in a press release the night before the board vote.

The foundation submitted the application Aug. 1 with hopes of gaining approval to open the school in August 2014. The foundation already provides oversight and finances to five other charter schools in Florida. Haiko said the foundation planned to contract with Charter Schools USA, a national management company that operates 42 charter schools in Florida, to run the day-to-day operations. There also would have been a local governing council made up of MacDill families and community members that would answer to the foundation and help guide the school.

Supporters, including the base commander, Col. Scott DeThomas, want to open an 875-student K-8 school independent from the district so that they have greater freedom and flexibility to bring in special programs, curriculum and other measures to better serve the children, many of whom have experienced the anxiety of changing schools several times and having their parents deployed for months at a time.

“It is an important vision,” Edgecomb acknowledged. “There is a real respect and regard for those who serve our country and their children. We don’t want to seem insensitive, but it is not clear … who is running the school.”

Doretha Edgecomb

Doretha Edgecomb

“I would like to see MacDill have full autonomy – the folks that have the vision,” said another board member, Susan Valdez.

Haiko conceded that governing structure is somewhat unique, but he said that having the foundation and an advisory council actually provides an extra layer of oversight.

“We have demonstrated that the structure is both legally and structurally sound,” he told the board before the vote. “In fact, it is the best of both worlds. I fail to understand why this effort has become controversial.”

Other deficiencies noted by the district included weaknesses with the school’s mission, management and its duplication of services already provided by other organizations on the base. Hillsborough also took issue with one of the three local schools run by Charter Schools USA, citing its state grade of an F. The other two schools rated a B and a C.

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