Charter Schools Safe As Hillsborough Reverses Decision After Financial Pressure From State
The vote came after the Florida Board of Education said not renewing the charter contracts could lead to the Hillsborough County School District losing $950 million in state funding.
The Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday reversed its decision to cancel contracts with four charter schools, putting an end to weeks of contentious debate between the district and state education officials.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a stern letter to the board after its vote last month to not renew the contracts of Kid’s Community College Charter School, Pivot Charter School, SouthShore Charter Academy, and Woodmont Charter School.
In the letter, Corcoran warned of “serious consequences” and threatened to withhold state money from the Hillsborough County School District. Despite that pressure, the school board initially stood firm on its decision.
At a meeting last week, however, State Board of Education members backed Corcoran, unanimously approving an order he drafted that gave the Hillsborough County School District until July 26 to “document compliance with the law” regarding the renewal requests.
“To comply with that order, you do have options, and I want to go over those with you,” Jim Porter, attorney for the Hillsborough School Board, told members during a special board meeting Tuesday morning.
“But you need to fully understand the risks associated with each option. If you choose to do nothing and let your decision stand, the state board's order would give the state the right to withhold state funding that would amount to approximately $950 million.”
Hillsborough received just under $1.2 billion from the state for the 2020-21 school year.
Board members said it would be impossible for the school district to operate if it were to lose $950 million of that funding.
“This is the third time in one year the state has threatened to withhold funds that would cripple our district and not be able to pay our staff,” board member Jessica Vaughn said.
“I see a pattern developing where the state threatens to withhold funding whenever we make a decision they don't like.”
Porter defended the legality of the initial decision and said another option would be for the school board to sue the state. He warned of serious financial risks, however, as the state could withhold the money from the district until a legal decision would be made. There would also be significant fees associated with a lawsuit.
The final option, he said, would be complying with the state’s order to renew the four charter schools.
“That would ensure our funding was intact and would also mean that the district would save money on the legal fees associated with defending those four actions,” Porter said.
“Our recommendation has to be to move forward with approval of all four charter schools,” Superintendent Addison Davis said. “That's where I stand right now in an effort to protect all funding for Hillsborough County Public Schools.”
The board voted 6 to 1 in favor of renewing the charter school contracts for five years, reversing the decision it staunchly defended just weeks prior.
“Our hands have been tied, clearly, by the State Board of Education,” Board Vice Chair Stacy Hahn said. “The State Board of Education was very clear ordering this board to reverse our decision regarding charter school renewals or suffer grave financial consequences.”
Despite most board members expressing contempt at the situation, Vaughn was the only one to vote against reversing course.
“It's disturbing when unelected state officials attempt to thwart the will of the people by threatening funding that will impact over 200,000 students, their families, our teachers, staff and the entire community when the state doesn't like a local decision,” Vaughn said.
“I think we have to have a long conversation and a long look at how often we're going to roll over to the state every single time they threaten us that they don't like the decisions that we make locally.”
While the charter school contracts have now been renewed, the board plans to create corrective action plans for all four schools. They will address problems identified in their original vote, including a lack of exceptional student education (ESE) and gifted programs, poor academic records, and financial difficulties.
“Our job is also to make certain that we hold every one of the charter schools accountable and that we have monitoring plans to review financial concerns, ESE concerns, gifted concerns, attendance concerns, class size concerns, whatever it be,” Davis said.
“We would identify whether it's on a bi-weekly basis on a monthly basis to make certain that services are provided.”
Each of the four charter schools have one calendar year to make corrective actions to the issues outlined in letters sent to them last month.
If the charter schools do not make improvements, the school board will have authority to decline renewal again.