Endless lawsuits over charter schools hurt our students
I am the chairman of the non-profit governing board for Renaissance Charter School. Our volunteer board oversees 38 charter schools in eight Florida counties, including six in Palm Beach. Our education provider is Charter Schools USA, one of the nation’s highest performing and most wellrespected management companies. Although it is a for-profit company, it is the non-profit board who is ultimately responsible for the academic performance and financial viability of our schools.
Typically, when we open our first school in a district, there is a period of adjustment. Sometimes, there is some pushback by the local school board. However, after board members see that we operate safe, high-performing and financially sound schools, we develop professional working relationships. Most districts find a way to move forward for the good of all students in the county.
I wish I could say that is the case with the Palm Beach County School Board. However, unfortunately, I can’t. In the beginning, board members worked with us, and approved six charters. Then, relations suddenly became openly hostile — not only to us, but to other charter schools that serve a combined 20,000 students in the district. The School Board rejected all 22 of the charter school applications it received in 2014-15. This makes it an outlier among large school districts in Florida. The unique hostility of Palm Beach has since been underscored by, among other things, the district’s refusal to include charter schools in its choice expo.
Parents at our K-8 schools asked us to build a high school, so their children could continue in our system. The School Board refused. In the consideration of another charter application, board member Debra Robinson, as reported by the Sun Sentinel in April 2015, described the application rejection as an “act of civil disobedience,” after the district’s own staff recommended approval. That act of “civil disobedience” has cost the county taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees, fighting for a losing cause.
After it lost an appeal to the State Board of Education, the school board chose to spend more taxpayer dollars in the District Court of Appeals, only to lose again. It continued to squander tax dollars, taking the case to the Florida Supreme Court, which refused even to hear it.
Now, in total disregard for taxpayer dollars, the district is taking up yet another challenge to parents’ right to educational choice. It has filed a lawsuit against the new law designed to help level the playing field between traditional public schools and charter schools.
Last year, Florida Tax Watch reported that Florida charter schools received approximately $7,300 per student, while district schools received about $10,300 per student. That’s quite a difference.
The new law requires districts to share just some of its local property tax money to help more equitably fund charter school students.
This is expected to cost the district $8 million this year. It’s trying to portray this as a fiscal disaster, even though the district’s annual budget is approximately $1.7 billion.
Why are our public charter school students worth less than district public school students? Public schools in our community would have a lot more money in their coffers if the school board would stop litigating against parents and students.
Our schools could also devote a lot more money to the classroom and teacher pay instead of attorney fees.
The only winners in this process are the lawyers. The losers are students, parents and taxpayers. They would all be better off if the Palm Beach County School Board would end its misguided march to the courthouse.
Pompano Beach resident Ken Haiko is chairman of Renaissance Charter Schools, Inc.