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Duval May Lose Three Middle Schools to Charters If State Bill Passes, Board Warns

Posted April 4, 2017 | 08:40 pm | Updated 09:45 pm | By Denise Smith Amos

Duval schools might have to close and give away three middle schools to a charter school operator next school year if a bill moving fast in Florida’s House gets approved, district leaders said Tuesday during a School Board meeting.  The district also could lose tens of millions more dollars each year to charter schools if other proposed changes are approved that would change the way capital dollars are awarded. Capital outlay dollars, which are raised locally and from the state, pay for school buildings, facility improvements and equipment. The result, if these bills succeed, could be massive transfers of tax payer dollars and tax-funded assets, such as school buildings, to charter school operators, district leaders said.  And if those charter schools close, taxpayers won’t recoup most of those assets, said board member Becki Couch.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate like private schools, independent of elected School Boards. In Florida, many state legislators have received large political campaign donations from charter school operators. Charter school proponents in the Legislature have said they are trying to expand school choices for students in persistently under-performing schools.House Bill 5101 would force all Florida districts to close public schools that are graded D or F in consecutive years and turn those schools over to charter school operators. There are 115 D and F schools in Florida this year, said board Chairwoman Paula Wright.  In Duval County, Ribault Middle School, Matthew Gilbert Middle and Northwestern Middle are in danger, she said. Ribault Middle has a D, the same as last year; Gilbert has a D, up from F last year; and Northwest Middle has a D, up from F. Those schools serve about 1,600 students.If those schools don’t earn a C or better this school year, Duval could be forced to close them and allow a charter school to take over, if the bill succeeds, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.  Under Florida law now, only a school board can open or close a district school. The law change would give such decisions to charter operators and the state, he said.Also, the bill would significantly reduce how much time a district has to turn around a school. Now districts have several years, but the change would give them one or two.District leaders urged the board meeting audience to contact their state representatives this week.  “We still have time to pull together as a community so we make certain they understand that this is not what we want,” Wright said. “If they’re going to use our tax dollars, we should have a say-so.”  Oak Hill Elementary and Hyde Grove Elementary are also being monitored, Vitti said, because they have already been restructured by the district this school year, Vitti said.  Oak Hill now specializes in autism and Hyde Grove specializes in preschool through second grades.

The bill is designed to attract charter operators to Florida by allowing them to create “schools of hope” within those schools, which will mostly be in low-income neighborhoods. Vitti said the bill used to call them “schools of success” but legislators changed that because “success” would be difficult name to live up to.Under the bill, if a charter school takes over a low-scoring public school, they won’t have to provide transportation and their teachers won’t have the same requirements for certification as regular public school teachers do, Couch said.  Vitti added that so far, charter schools have not as a whole performed better than district schools in low-income areas.If a School of Hope fails to get a C or better over five years, the bill would require that charter school to close and the control over the school building would go to the state — not back the district, Vitti said.There is no a matching bill in the Florida Senate. State Sen. Aaron Bean, a Republican representing Nassau and part of Duval County, did propose one but later withdrew it.But some observers have said it would be possible to quickly pass a Senate version by including it in an omnibus education bill, sometimes called a “legislative train,” with little or no debate.Denise Smith Amos: (904) 359-4083

Article provided by Karen Nuland, President-Duval County Council of PTAs

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