Florida school district a ‘model’ for charter school relations

Charter school forum

The Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools hosted a forum Friday at a Fort Lauderdale hotel. Photo courtesy of the consortium.

FORT LAUDERDALE – Some of the charter school leaders gathered last week in South Florida reported tensions run high.

Districts are in court to fighting a new law intended to make charter school funding fairer. Many have cranked up the rhetoric or found ways to slight charter schools they authorize.

A delegation from Sarasota County highlighted a different approach. Led by new Superintendent Todd Bowden, they described how districts and charter schools can get along.

Bowden

Their school board declined to join the lawsuit over House bill 7069. It shared facilities funding with charters before the legislation passed. It also allowed charter schools to participate fully in Title I — a longstanding charter school complaint the legislation tried to address.

But the key might be the district’s overall attitude toward the charter schools it sponsors.

“They’re a part of our district,” Bowden said. This is reinforced by a state law that includes charters in district-wide letter grades. He said that when he addresses community groups, he likes to tout the achievements of Sarasota charters alongside the schools the district runs itself.

Sarasota is a relatively affluent district. It’s one of two in the state that have constantly maintained the state’s top academic rating, even as the state ratchets up academic standards.

“There are years for which we would not have been an A-rated district if we had removed some of the charter schools from that system,” Bowden said.

Vickie Marble, who leads a long-running Venice-based charter school, said the good relations run both ways.

“When the superintendent and the board members can celebrate the successes of the charter schools in their districts, it just makes for good relationships,” she said.

The good vibes left an impression on legislators who joined the summit.

Reps. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah and Shevrin Jones, D-West Park address a gathering hosted by the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. Photo courtesy of the consortium.

“I think we have a model for what should be occurring in other districts,” said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah. He said school district leaders sometimes act as though they represent the schools their districts run. But in his community, many families have opted for charters and other options. Elected school board members “actually represent the same constituents that I do,” he said.

The annual gatherings hosted by the Florida Consortium of Public Charter schools typically include a mix of district and charter leaders. District attendance was noticeably sparse this year. The Sarasota officials were an exception.

Robert Haag, who leads both the consortium and a small South Florida charter school network, said he asked district officials — led by Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie — not to attend if they were involved in the lawsuit over HB 7069. The litigation could pit districts against charter school interests in the courtroom.

Haag said he tries to keep relations with district leaders warm, and hopes they’ll be back next year.

That might become more likely if more districts take Sarasota’s approach.

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, put it this way: “If they are going to be incorporated into the school district, as they are in Sarasota, then there’s not going to be the same animosity.”

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