Log in Subscribe

Public Charter Conversions Could Become Popular Option


If 51 percent of both teachers and households vote in favor of a proposal to convert popular elementary magnet school Rowlett into a public charter school, Manatee School District could see the beginning of a trend. Frustrated by district mismanagement and the harsh spending cuts that have ensued, parents and teachers at successful schools are looking for a way to insulate themselves against a system that they see as having failed them.

Earlier this month, Rowlett held a meeting with parents to explain the process of converting the school into a public charter. While the district has taken on public charters in the past, Rowlett would be the first of its schools to convert, and even if parents and teachers vote to go charter, the school board would have to approve the plan. A non-zoned magnet school (meaning no students are districted for it and all must choice in), Rowlett emphasizes performing arts, visual arts, and communications. In some ways, it's closer in principle to a charter school, though a conversion of this sort would mean major administrative changes.

The school would take control of most of its funding, but would also have to take on many administrative costs which are currently handled by the district. Ideally, Florida's county districting improves efficiencies by consolidating administrative expenses and leveraging purchasing power on a greater economy of scale. But after years of financial mismanagement and questionable administrative expansion, many at the school level are questioning whether they are actually better off with the giant administration calling all of the shots.

Discretionary spending was recently frozen at all schools, who were also told that there would be major cuts in the next school year's budget. For parents, teachers and school-level administrators who had nothing to do with the decisions that led to the multi-million dollar shortfall, it's difficult to accept that their students and children should feel the sting of the ensuing belt-tightening.

Christine Sket is a member of the Student Advisory Council at Rowlett, where she says her children have benefited tremendously from the school's unique programming and educational philosophy. Like many parents, Sket says she just wants to see what has been working remain in place, while worrying that cuts and administrative changes might threaten any autonomy Rowlett's had to this point -- autonomy that would increase with such a conversion.

Debra Woithe is the chair of Rowlett's SAC and echoed Sket's concerns. Woithe also served on the Citizen Advisory Council that assisted in the search for new superintendent Rick Mills. She says she has faith that Mills is the "right guy for the job" and will get the district's fiscal house in order. But Woithe also said that her first priority is obviously her children's education and that regardless of what happens on the district level, the move may be best for a unique school like Rowlett, which would then be able to control its own curriculum and have greater flexibility with teachers and administrators.

Both Woithe and Sket expressed tremendous faith in Rowlett Principal Brian Flynn, an administrator who is highly-popular with both teachers and parents, who they say the school would look to hire as a consultant after his upcoming to retirement from the district. Such a conversion would bring a tremendous amount of risk and though there aren't yet enough examples in the state to draw strong conclusions from, many schools who have gone the conversion route have not had a smooth transition.

School board member, Dave "Watchdog" Miner, who was elected as a reform candidate in 2012, said he understood the frustrations of parents and staff, but questioned the idea that converting to a public charter would leave them better off.

"It's very difficult for me to imagine how Rowlett would be able to continue to have the quality of programs they've had out there for so many years, when going the charter route would most likely reduce the amount of funds and resources available to make those programs work," said Miner.  

Miner called the vote, which will take place during the last week of classes, a "sobering decision that should be weighed heavily," and said that in his opinion, parents and staff would be best served by continuing to be an important part of the district, rather than going down an "uncharted path."

It also needs to be noted that it is the replacement administration which seems to be suffering the blowback for enacting a plan to correct the failures of its predecessors. The board majority that helped bring about sweeping changes did not exist when the budget shortfalls were being created, and though he's been in his position less than 100 days, Superintendent Rick Mills has already implemented broad change, reorganizing the administration and bringing in two highly-qualified deputy superintendents from outside the district. Nonetheless, it will be Mills and company who will be doling out the medicine in order to bring the budget and required funds back to balance.

Parents and teachers who still cannot fully comprehend the vastly complex budget failures that put the district in such dire straits are unlikely to demonstrate much if any patience when programs they value are cut, or educators they admire are let go. Of course, a rush of schools attempting to convert could be disastrous for both the schools and the district. It would seem in everyone's best interest to see the district successfully repair itself, while continuing to champion schools like Rowlett, rather than lose them, especially since the school seems to have done very well while under the district. We'll see if that chance will be given after the upcoming vote(s). In the meantime, school districts should be on notice: few things are as important as the trust of your constituents. 

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


No comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.