Despite warnings that it may be overturned by the state Department of Education, the Polk County School Board Tuesday denied a charter for the Polk Maritime Academy in north Lakeland.
The board also is considering outsourcing the hiring of substitute teachers to a private firm which would allow recently retired teachers back into the classroom.
Superintendent of Schools Kathryn LeRoy and the board’s own charter school review committee recommended approval of the charter for the K-eighth grade maritime school even though it failed to fully meet all the criteria established by the board to create new, self-governed schools within the county district.
School Board Attorney Wes Bridges told the board it could cost up to $20,000 to defend its denial should the Palm Beach group seeking approval for the Maritime Academy choose to appeal the board’s denial.
Most of the board members appeared to have issues with some of the “partially met” findings of the board’s review committee, even though they were told those curriculum issues could be ironed out during contract negotiations.
“We can work those out in the contract,” said Charter Schools Director Brian Warren.
Board member Lori Cunningham voiced her concern that a school, “located in North Lakeland and called a maritime academy is going to benefit out students” and asked “Why do they want to start a maritime school in the middle of the state?”
Fellow Board Member Tim Harris said he was concerned that the charter application didn’t assess the need for an additional kindergarten through eighth grade school in North Lakeland.
“To add another option is only going to dilute what’s up there and put this schools at risk,” he said, “And put our schools at financial risk as well.”
The proposed academy’s for-profit status and failure to establish a local governing board drew opposition from Board Member Hugh Berryman.
On the opposing side, Board Chairman Hazel Sellers said she was concerned the board wold loose an appeal to the DOE.
“This charter has all the required components that we have identified as necessary to become a charter school,” she said. “While I have some concerns about this, it’s not significant enough to deny them an application.”
Cunningham, Harris, and Board Members Dick Mullenax and Debra Wright voted to deny the application, with Sellers, Berryman and Board Member Kay Fields opting to support it.
Bridges told the board before the final vote that it could take him and his staff from 20 to 40 hours to prepare the board’s position if the academy promoters appealed the decision as well as at least two trips to Tallahassee where he could be given only about five minutes to present the board’s case for turning it down.
“It’s like the Supreme Court,” he explained. “We could only get five minutes to explain your position.”
He also said it was a toss-up whether the academy would win, but the cards appeared to be stacked in their favor since both the charter review committee and the superintendent had suggested approval. He also told the board it could cost as much as $20,000 to prepare an appeal.
While the Maritime Academy won the approval of the superintendent and the charter review committee, the CLEAR Charter and Golden Gate Scientific Leadership Academy of Lakeland were not recommended for approval by Leroy or the committee. The fourth applicant, Polk Academy of Math and Science, withdrew its application after the committee voted against it.
In other business, the school board heard a proposal from Kelly Educational Staffing to handle its substitute teachers, citing success in Duval and Orange counties with keeping classrooms staffed with substitutes.
The school board presently uses an in-house automated system for locating and assigning substitutes and only manages to provide an average of 84 percent of the substitute teachers needed.
District CFO Mike Perrone told the board the Kelly proposal could wind up costing the system $718,000, but it would get the school system off the hook for health insurance for substitutes who may work more than 30 hours per week.
He said if the substitutes were hired by Kelly, then Kelly would have to pay their health insurance, not the board.
Kelly’s proposal could however draw on newly retired Polk teachers who want to get back into the classroom, the board learned, since the state regulations only prohibit the board from rehiring them within a year of their retirement.
According to the proposal, Kelly would also recruit substitutes from neighboring counties that could help fill voids apparent in some outlying schools, said Marty Young, who oversees the substitute program for the county. Some schools are forced to use “creative thinking” to fill classrooms, he said, and cited one instance where an East Polk elementary school principal pulled a special education paraprofessional from her duties to staff a classroom.
Harris said, “Outsourcing bothers me and I don’t want to back ourselves into a corner on this, but we have to put teachers in the classrooms so the students don’t lose those days. They are too important.”
The board made no decision on the matter at Tuesday’s meeting.