Rowlett votes to become Manatee's first charter conversion

rdymond@bradenton.comJune 11, 2013 

MANATEE -- In a historic vote Monday at Rowlett Magnet Elementary School, 94 percent of Rowlett teachers and 95 percent of Rowlett parents voted to convert to a public charter school for the 2014-2015 school year,

When all votes were tallied, Rowlett teachers supported a charter 57-4 and Rowlett parents voted 480-26 in favor of the move.

The votes positioned Rowlett, known for its arts and communication programs, closer to becoming the first Manatee County conversion charter school.

Many parents among a crowd of about 150 who gathered in the Rowlett Multi-Purpose Room were jubilant over the vote, which they say will protect the school's cherished arts and communication programs from the chopping block of a school district in financial distress.

"We want to keep Rowlett, Rowlett," said Erin Novarro, whose son, Matthew, is a second-grader.

Novarro said her son loves baseball, but now has an open mind toward dance, drama, fine art and language skills, all things he has done since kindergarten.

"My son is well-rounded," Novarro said. "He's a baseball player who has worked in many arts mediums and danced. These teachers are dedicated. Already this summer, Matthew has gotten a summer work packet from his teacher, Kim Klaase.

"My friends tell me, 'We don't get summer packets.' Kim also texts me on her cell phone about Matthew's progress."

Rowlett teacher Linda Bolno, who has been at Rowlett all 13 years of its existence, said a lot of hard work has gone into making the school a success. She said she voted "yes" because she does not want to see the school retreat from the academic high ground it has claimed.

Being a charter will give the school more leeway to run its own ship, she said.

"Rowlett is very unique place," Bolno said. "We have a culture of trust and respect."

Robert and Marisol Rodriguez have sent their daughter, Sienna, 9, to Rowlett for four years.

"She recently tested into the gifted program," Marisol Rodriguez said. "She's a member of the Rowlett Chicks. She was a little shy but she's blossomed."

Marisol Rodriguez cried when Sienna was accepted at Rowlett.

"We feel it's like a private school where you don't pay every month," said Robert Rodriguez, who donates resources to the school from his business, Tarzan Tree and Landscaping.

Rowlett Principal Brian Flynn remained low-key Monday.

"I'm not surprised," Flynn said of the vote. "I'm pleased that our parents and staff understood the path we were going. We still have a lot of work ahead of us."

Rowlett school officials must now 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 can appeal to the state Department of Education.

The charter school conversion idea took root about two and a half months ago during a Rowlett School Advisory Council meeting when parent Christine Sket said Rowlett could protect its teachers, aides, assistants and internal funding from a cash-starved school district. The state provides a charter option, Sket told Flynn.

Flynn said Monday the fact the school district, which is in financial distress, took $45,000 from Rowlett's internal account, was one of several factors that led to the vote.

"Not getting the teacher allocation we need to continue to offer the magnet programs was a big part of it," Flynn said. "Right now, our most current allocation shows 6.5 teachers less than last year in addition to 2.5 less teacher assistants and four less teacher aides than last year.

"Also, we earned a lot of money for our programs through after-school care," Flynn said. "Next year we can have less of that money."

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.

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