LAND O’ LAKES — A split Pasco County School Board approved a charter school’s application Tuesday, but board members expressed concern because Superintendent Kurt Browning allowed the school to make changes or clarifications to the application after his staff initially recommended denial.
Charter school applicants in the past weren’t given that opportunity.
Board member Joanne Hurley, who cast the dissenting vote in the board’s 4-1 decision, said Browning essentially gave a “do-over” to Pepin Academies, which plans to open a school in 2014 that would serve students with disabilities.
“I think it it’s very unfair to past and future applicants because I think you allowed this applicant to make substantive changes,” Hurley said.
Other board members expressed concerns as well, though they ultimately voted to approve the application.
Browning disagreed that allowing Pepin Academies to clarify problems found in the application amounted to a “do-over.” He said his staff’s concerns related to whether the school was financially and academically viable, and the additional curriculum and budget information the school provided assured Browning that it was.
As a result, he and his staff presented the board with a recommendation to approve the school.
“Pepin did not get a do-over,” Browning said. “Pepin got what they were entitled to under Florida law and board policy.”
Browning said he found it more problematic that in the past, charter school applicants were called in for a meeting with the district to discuss staff concerns and provide additional information. In those meetings, the staff traditionally had never given the charter school representatives any indication whether the additional information was satisfactory, he said.
“Any charter applicant will leave that meeting thinking they have addressed all the questions, all the concerns,” Browning said. “They will leave the meeting thinking they are good to go.”
Then when the school board agenda came out, the charter school would learn its application was recommended for denial.
“I think that’s wrong,” Browning said.
Although Browning said Pepin wasn’t given special treatment, he acknowledged the school was treated differently than past charter schools were in similar situations. But he said that’s because he takes a different approach to the application process than former Superintendent Heather Fiorentino, whom he succeeded a year ago.
Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said state law allows for a charter school to make “nonsubstantive” corrections or clarifications to an application after it has been submitted, but there is no clarity on what is considered “nonsubstantive.”
Board member Alison Crumbley said while she understands that a new superintendent resulted in a different process, she worries about the district being inconsistent.
“I think we need to make things transparent, whatever word we want to use, so we don’t appear wishy-washy,” Crumbley said.
Board member Allen Altman, though, said the way Pepin was handled “is what this board wanted to occur after we ran into some issues a couple of years ago.”
One of the more notable cases happened in 2011 when the board followed staff recommendations and rejected an application from Classical Preparatory School. The school wanted the opportunity to address and correct the staff’s concerns about its application, but board members didn’t allow that to happen even though some of them expressed regrets at the time about a process that prohibited it.
Classical Preparatory School reapplied a year later and is scheduled to open in 2014.
Charter schools are public schools, but are operated privately. They use taxpayer dollars so they are not allowed to charge tuition.
Now that the application for Pepin Academies has been approved, the next step is for the school to negotiate a contract with the school board.
Pepin Academies has operated a charter school in Hillsborough County since 1998 and recently added a campus in Riverview. The school has not decided on a location for its Pasco campus.