Rowlett prepares to count parent ballots in charter decision

eearl@bradenton.comJune 7, 2013 

MANATEE -- Whether Rowlett Elementary School will convert from a public school to a charter school is being decided this week as parents cast their ballots on the issue.

Voting closes at 3:30 p.m. Friday and Principal Brian Flynn will count the ballots of parents Monday to determine the results.

Rowlett would be the first conversion charter school in Manatee County if more than half of Rowlett parents vote in favor of the charter.

It was the school district's financial morass, Flynn says, that prompted him to propose converting the school to a charter school, giving it control over its own budget and protecting its internal accounts from being taken by the school district.

The school district has frozen the budgets for every school in the district since the end of February. By controlling its own budget, Flynn said Rowlett will not be subject to the district's budgetary problems.

"We will have to work within the budget for the number of students that we have," Flynn said, "but we will have more

flexibility of using funds."

Flynn acknowledges that he is in the DROP program and is set to retire October 2014. In addition to receiving his DROP benefits once he retires, Flynn could continue as Rowlett's principal if the charter is approved.

Flynn said ultimately that decision is up to the charter board.

"They will determine who will be principal of the charter school based on who they see best fit to take over," Flynn said. "I will do whatever they ask me to do. If they ask me to say, that is their decision. If they ask me to leave, that is their decision."

Rowlett also is an "A" performing school, but Flynn said that shouldn't influence the conversion. He says he is looking for more independence with the curriculum, personnel evaluations and expanding the school's programs.

"The reason is that we want to continue to offer unique magnet programs in communication, arts, technology and language," Flynn said. "We are not getting allocations to sustain those."

Superintendent of schools Rick Mills said he keeps hearing staff reductions and the "donation" of internal account money echoed as reasons for conversion. But he questions if Flynn and the school have considered all of the costs involved in being a charter.

"Have they thought about budget and the costs they will absorb that will no longer be provided by the district?" Mills said. "That is something they will need to think about."

Don Hall, the district's deputy superintendent of operations, offered Rowlett a budget projection based on the average cost of service. Using district numbers, Hall predicts that Rowlett will have a budget shortfall of $490,593, if the conversion is approved.

"They can control their cost in a lot of ways," Hall said. "They can choose to contract with the schools district, contract with an outside firm or no longer provide certain things."

But Flynn said he has been considering the conversion for about two months and, according to his budget calculations, Rowlett will have a surplus of over $100,000 if it converts to a charter.

"You take the state money that is given per students and the cost to contract services to the district," Flynn said. "You either lose money, break even, or make money, and we will be in the black."

Flynn said Rowlett is expecting an increase in enrollment for the next school year. He acknowledged the school will have to contract for certain services, such as transportation and its lunch program.

In a conversion charter, school staff will determine whether they want to stay in the Florida retirement system, with the charter paying their percentage instead of the district.

Rowlett held three meetings with parents to go over charter information and take questions.

Flynn has met with Mills twice to talk about the conversion.

"I hope the vote comes out in positive way for teachers and parents, and I hope the district is supportive and helpful," Flynn said.

Hall did not discuss his thoughts about Rowlett's decision to go charter.

"As a district, we don't have a stance on that,' Hall said. "We try not to influence them one way or another. We stay neutral and do not quantify pros and cons."

Rowlett parent Lindy Dunbar said that she felt prepared to vote for the conversion, but said it is hard to understand the plan for Rowlett going forward.

"It is a scary prospect going on," Dunbar said. "There are schools losing programs and teachers."

Dunbar said what sold her on Rowlett was the extra after-school programs and the school's huge performing arts program. Although she said the school has a strong parent fundraising program, Dunbar said her biggest fear is losing the extra programs.

"Let's be honest, they take money," she said. "If money isn't there, extra things don't happen. I hope Rowlett becomes a charter so we can be empowered to make our own decisions and be in control of our own money."

Flynn said Rowlett would continue to follow the same procedures for student selection as it does as a magnet school.

The school requires parents to come tour the school and fill out an application. If more parents with incoming students tour than the school can accommodate, the school will select students first by proximity and then by a "random selection," Flynn said.

"There is no try-out and no screening process," Flynn said.

Flynn said that this year, the minority and free and reduced lunch program population were at the levels that the district requires of a magnet school. Demographics show that Rowlett's student body is 52 percent white and 48 percent minority, and 43 percent of students were on free and reduced lunch.

Flynn said he does not anticipate changes in Rowlett's Exceptional Student Education population.

Rowlett's non-gifted Exceptional Student Education population was 12 percent this year, and its gifted Exceptional Student Education population was at 6.4 percent.

The ballot for the charter conversion is a 3x2-inch sheet of paper with a simple yes or no.

Dunbar said she has been standing outside the school every morning with a few other parents to encourage voting.

"We are not telling them to vote yes or no, but just to vote," Dunbar said. "Everyone should do their own research on charter schools."

The ballots will be counted at 6 p.m. Monday at a special assembly at Rowlett.

If a conversion is approved, Rowlett will have to put together a charter proposal to present to the Manatee County school board, which will ultimately decide whether to grant the charter.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @ericabearl.

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