Manatee's Rowlett Elementary considers charter school option during budget crisis

jdela@bradenton.comMay 8, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Rowlett Magnet Elementary School, concerned about the financial uncertainty facing the Manatee County School District, is exploring a novel approach to ensure the quality of its academic programs, which focus on communications and the arts.

Teachers and parents will vote this month on whether to convert Rowlett into a public charter school by the 2014-2015 school year, which would give it a degree of independence from the district.

If approved, Rowlett would be the district's first conversion charter school and the 21st such school in Florida.

"It's uncharted territory in Manatee County," said Christine Sket, a student advisory committee member who addressed parents at a meeting Tuesday at the school.

Principal Brian Flynn

brought parents into the school to present steps the school must take to become a conversion charter school. He said his budget has already been cut as the school district grapples with a severe deficit.

Superintendent of Schools Rick Mills announced a spending freeze this week through July 1, including all spending not required by the state for safety and health.

Any spending deemed unnecessary will come straight out of staff salaries, Mills said.

Flynn said he doesn't know if the magnet school will be able to offer Spanish classes and after-school enrichments classes for its 900 students if the cuts continue beyond July 1.

"It's going to be very tight and tough over the next couple of years," Flynn said. "I'm concerned, yes."

Flynn will retire next year as principal, which would make him eligible to be hired by the charter school's governing board.

Debra Woithe, chairwoman of the school advisory committee, said the degree of control a charter school would provide Rowlett is a big selling point.

"Even if we didn't have a financial crisis now, this is still a good choice for us," she said.

In Polk County, where nine schools have converted to charter schools, the conversions haven't all been smooth, according to Carolyn Bridges, Polk's senior director of magnet, choice and charter schools.

"Look at 95 percent of dollars that a charter generates," she said. "Now as a school they are independently taking on payroll, health insurance and ESE services. Suddenly you have to take all of that on. It can look appealing but as you dig into budget ... about 60 percent to 70 percent figure out that they can't do it on their own."

Teachers are still considered public employees although they are technically on leave of absence to work at a charter school, said Cheryl Etters of the Florida Department of Education. According to Florida statutes, a charter school teacher would continue to maintain and accrue seniority, "... and may continue to be covered by the benefit programs of that school district, if the charter school and the district school board agree to this arrangement and its financing."

Flynn said staff financial security is important.

"The biggest concern is that the staff will be taken care of," in any move to charter school status, he said.

Rowlett's aproximately 75 teachers will still be enrolled in the district retirement program, he said. And conversion charter schools he has contacted offer benefits plans "competitive if not better" than what they had before, Flynn said.

When asked the downside to becoming a charter school, Flynn said he hasn't seen any. He emphasized it's about being able to have more control over their children's education.

"It's about student achievement. It's about parent empowerment. And it's about teacher empowerment," he told parents Tuesday.

As a charter school, teachers would have more input on curriculum and have a voice in any evaluation process, he added.

In an e-mail sent late Tuesday to the Herald, the district said Mills visited Tuesday with staff at Rowlett and "shared his vision about future plans for the School District," but it did not elaborate on that vision. The e-mail indicated Mills plans to meet with Rowlett parents next week.

Manatee School Board Chairwoman Karen Carpenter said she's looking forward to evaluating the charter school application. As board chair, she'll be looking at the school's viability and sustainability to make sure it can stand on its own.

"It's good to take a look at all the options," Carpenter said. "My concern is the quality of education. This will be interesting."

While a charter school is accountable to the school district to be financially solvent and to maintain the same levels of achievement as other schools, it also has more control over how it spends money and how curriculum is taught.

"(Charter schools) have a little more flexibility in who they hire," DOE's Etters said.

Rowlett has consistently been a top performer in the Manatee school district earning As and Bs from the state since 2008.

"I think it's a positive step," said Susan DeWitt, who has two children enrolled at Rowlett. "Financial issues are everything" to maintain unique school programs such as drama, film school and music classes. "The kids are exposed to so many different things that aren't in other public schools."

The next step is a vote by parents and teachers. Each household, regardless of the number of students, has one vote. Teachers also have a vote.

Votes may be cast during the last week of classes May 31 to June 7. Ballots remain sealed until counted at 6 p.m. June 10 at a public meeting at the school.

Fifty-one percent of all Rowlett households and 51 percent of teachers must approve the plan. If the plan is approved, school officials must submit an application to the Manatee school board by Aug. 1 and the school board has 60 days to approve or reject the application.

If the school board turns down the application, Rowlett would have 30 days to appeal to the state Department of Education, which must rule within 10 days of the appeal.

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