MANATEE -- Dozens of parents, teachers and administrators gathered Wednesday at Rowlett Magnet Elementary School to debate the merits of becoming a charter school.
Proponents say the charter school approach to be voted on May 31 to June 7 could save the school from the same financial woes now plaguing the cash-strapped Manatee County School District.
"I don't think finances are going to be a problem if we go charter, but I do if think they will be if we stay with the district," said Jessica Nehrboss, mother of four, including one Rowlett student, one graduate and two more coming into Rowlett.
Before parents and teachers vote next week on whether Rowlett should become a conversion charter school, district officials tried to dissuade them from making the move.
"The support we have provided Rowlett has helped make it an A-school," Manatee County Schools Director of Elementary Schools Joe Strokes said.
There are no conversion
charter schools in Manatee County but a spending freeze announced by Superintendent of Schools Rick Mills, effective through July 1, made Rowlett officials consider going charter.
Many parents expressed concerns about the money Mills had taken from the Rowlett's internal account to pay down deficits at the district level
"There will be a restoration of those funds," Mills said. "I'm committed to paying a percentage of it back."
Carolyn Bridges, senior director of the Polk County School Board Office of Magnet, Choice and Charter Schools, shared her extensive experience with conversion charter schools.
"I am making a passionate plea," Bridges said. "Know what you are voting for. You should have, at the very least, a detailed draft of your charter application."
Bridges has been involved with nine Polk County conversion charter schools.
"A hands-down yes it is more expensive to run a conversion charter than a regular public school," Bridges said. "It is not a negative or a positive statement, it is a statement of reality."
The application should include names of founding board members, their qualifications, a benefits package and a detailed budget, Bridges said.
"Parents have decision-making authority right now. Teachers have that decision-making authority right now," Bridges said. "This can't move forward without you."
One Rowlett kindergarten teacher offered parents comfort in the uncertainties faced by staff.
"We are being told about everything. We are not going into this blind. We know where we are going and why," Linda Bolno said. "Those of you worrying about us, don't."
Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations, presented a representative budget from the school district chief financial officer to give parents and teachers an idea of potential operating costs if they voted to become a charter school.
"Using the current numbers you are projected at running a $490,000 deficit," Hall said. "If you use today's figures only, you would not operate at a profit."
One father expressed dissatisfaction with the information being provided.
"As a parent, it is almost 8:30 and I feel like I still don't know more than I knew when I walked in at 6:30," Christopher Rigoli said.
Each household, regardless of student numbers, has one vote. Teachers also have a vote.
Votes may be cast during the last week of classes. Ballots remain sealed until counted at 6 p.m. June 10 at a public meeting at the school.
The plan must be approved by 51 percent of Rowlett households and 51 percent of teachers to move forward. If approved, school officials must submit the charter application by Aug. 1 to be considered for the 2014-2015 school year.
The school board will have 60 days to approve or reject the application.
If the application is rejected by the school board, Rowlett would have 30 days to appeal to the state Department of Education, which must rule within 10 days of the appeal.
"I am not telling you how to vote one way or another, but to look at the reality," school board member Dave Miner said. "The sharing of costs, that should be a consideration."
Jessica De Leon, Herald Reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.