End­less law­suits over char­ter schools hurt our stu­dents

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - VOICES & OPINION - By Ken Haiko

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.

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