Charting a new course for Rowlett Elementary School

eearl@bradenton.comJune 23, 2013 

MANATEE -- Manatee County could have its first charter school conversion in the fall of 2014 if Rowlett Elementary school successfully submits an application by Aug. 1 for school board approval -- a complex challenge that has brought together a diverse group of planners.

A team of at least 50 parents, school officials and community members are working on the application, and they must think beyond educational goals -- which they know well -- to calculate every financial and operational detail. Until now, Rowlett, a consistently A-rated public school, has rarely had to give in-depth consideration to issues such as transportation, food services, federal money and data and technology.

Parents and teachers overwhelmingly voted this month in favor of Rowlett Elementary becoming a conversion charter school, after the financially distressed school district froze every school's budget and used their internal funds to help make up for the district's deficit.

At that point, converting to a charter school became an attractive proposition for Rowlett's parents and teachers, who want to preserve the school's arts programs and have more control over money and curriculum.

But it also offers challenges and uncertainties.

While working on the application, Rowlett can still revoke its decision to become a charter. The scale of economies, expertise required and unexpected expenses have prompted some schools across the state to drop proposals midway through putting together their applications to become a conversion charter school.

Rowlett's application must include a clear and concise mission statement, a plan for governance and by-laws for a

charter board, a curriculum, and a health insurance plan and benefit package for staff and faculty.

Rowlett Principal Brian Flynn, one of the leaders in the conversion effort, says he has considered all of these things and is confident that, as a conversion charter, Rowlett will be in the black, despite district predictions that the conversion will cost the school about $500,000 every year in service contracts and health coverage.

"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."

Education as a business

While education is ultimately about teaching and learning -- the proverbial three r's -- running a school is really as much about business as it is education.

Converting to a charter means that the conversion team putting together the proposal must be well-versed in cost-benefit analysis, profit and loss, overhead, transportation costs, routing, food services, insurance, health and safety and the law.

Because charter schools are funded by state and federal tax dollars, there's a layer of bureaucracy and paperwork for accountability.

The state provides a base dollar amount per student for a charter school. Charter schools must pay the district 5 percent of that state funding for the first 250 students in administrative fees, not including additional fees for contracted services such as transportation. For Rowlett, that cost will be about $85,000.

Polk County is well-versed in public schools going charter, with a total of nine conversion charter schools in the district -- more than any other district in the state.

Damien Moses, principal of the charter middle school Edward W. Bok Academy in Lake Wales, said there is much to consider when going through the conversion process, down to the individual students who are assigned a dollar amount based on various needs.

"You need to understand the funding process for the state of Florida," Moses said. "You have to know the population of students. All of the different students come with a different value. You need a strong sense of what federal programs will fund the school."

Becoming a charter school is an evolving process, says Carolyn Bridges, the senior director of magnet, choice and charter schools in Polk County.

"Everyone's job roles change somewhat," Bridges said. "It depends on how the school addresses all the pieces in the application and how they take all the work done in other places by the district and drive it down to the school level."

Tough financial times makes this task even more difficult.

"It is simple if money is not an issue, but it is a challenge as budgets have decreased for everyone," Bridges said.

Schools often decide to convert to a charter to free themselves from the district controlling their budgets. But it is also the newfound responsibility of managing their budgets that has caused some schools to withdraw their charter application.

"Each principal or director is like a CEO of a company," Moses said. "They need strong backgrounds in vital areas like human resources."

Rowlett will need to negotiate contracts for services such as transportation, food services and facility management outside of state requirements.

Those contracts can be with the district or with private companies, but most conversion charters have found working with the district is less costly.

"The school will need to engage the district in a lot of conversation to determine what they are willing and able to do for them, as long as they (Rowlett) pay the costs," Bridges said. "It is usually far less than contracting with a private firm."

Finances pose a hurdle

A school can be well-intentioned and have great ideas, Bridges said, but the cost of converting becomes an issue as dollars are not available for all of its innovations.

"Most often, schools do not move forward because of finance," Bridges said. "They have the vote, they have teachers that are excited. But when it comes to pay for all that they have to do, for most schools it isn't feasible. They do not want to risk academic performance by taking on other duties."

Scott Lake Elementary school in Lakeland considered becoming a charter in the 2010-2011 school year. Janet Wizda, the principal of Scott Lake at the time, said the school hit a roadblock as they researched the cost to convert.

"We wanted to keep our existing student population, but some of the bus zones are farther away from Scott Lake," Wizda said. "Expenses for transportation were not in the budget."

Other Polk County schools suggested renting buses, but those, too, would not fit in the budget, Wizda said. By then, the date to submit the application and plans had passed.

Like Flynn, Wizda was in the DROP program, and she retired before the charter was submitted. Conversion plans have not been picked up by the new principal.

Wizda said the school was considering conversion to have more control over its budget and expenses as well as over academics. But Wizda knows that control over the budget can also be a charter's downfall.

"It is difficult to overcome unless you have resources in place and business partners in place," Wizda said.

Much like Manatee County, Polk County has a new superintendent and is in a period of transition. And budgets in schools statewide have been tight over the last few years.

"Budget cuts are a driving force in all of the schools," Wizda said.

Rowlett's fears, aspirations

Flynn says he isn't concerned about losing Rowlett's "A" status with the conversion. His goal is to maintain the school's magnet programs for art, technology and communications without the fear of district budget cuts interfering.

Rowlett wants to convert to a charter because, under the current administration, parents and teachers fear the school's programs and reputation are vulnerable.

As the district struggles financially, Rowlett supporters fear their magnet programs will be on the line.

"Our goal is to continue to be a unique program of choice," Flynn said. "Teachers will have a sense of empowerment over their curriculum and teaching styles. They will have a stronger sense of purpose."

Rowlett has strong parent involvement, and has been high-achieving despite district issues.

Flynn is in the DROP program and set to retire in October 2014, two months after Rowlett is scheduled to become a charter. If Rowlett is a charter, the school's charter board could hire Flynn as principal. He would get both his retirement benefits from the Manatee County school district, as well as benefits and pay from Rowlett. Flynn has said he would like to serve as principal of Rowlett for continuity as it becomes a charter.

Being a charter will allow for a more individualized classroom experience, free from a uniform, "one size fits all" curriculum, Flynn said. He is also considering different methods for teacher evaluations and student assessment.

"We are working closely with successful charter schools and learning a lot about what to do to be considered a successful charter," Flynn said. "We are already a successful school, and we will continue to follow some patterns and branch out in new directions with teacher evaluations and student assessment."

Moses said one of the biggest benefits of a charter school is finding and having control of different curriculums and programs.

"A lot of people believe that every student is taught the same, but that's like saying all kids wear the same size shoe. We all know that's not true," Moses said. "You can have creative, innovative things in education; things that are out there, may have constraints in other schools. Having those opportunities to create an enriching education environment is a big deal."

Many Polk County schools converted as a means of experimenting with creative learning techniques without the bureaucratic approval process. The schools can try new techniques in their classrooms. If it doesn't work, they can go back to their original plans without the risk of financial cut or other interference from the school district. If it works, they have new classroom innovations sooner than they might have if they had to go through the school board.

The application process

A charter does not have complete autonomy. It takes a team to put together a detailed application, and Rowlett will have to include a plan of governance and appoint a charter board.

A set of by-laws also must be developed for the charter board, including the number of members and how long they would serve.

The team working on Rowlett's application includes the assistant principal Kim Penman, Rowlett's Student Advisory Council chair Debra Woithe and Rowlett parents. Flynn said the well-rounded group has experience in curriculum and budgeting, with certified public accountants and members and past members of various boards including the Florida Orchestra and the Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences, a charter school.

"They have a variety of experience, expertise and backgrounds," Flynn said.

Rowlett's application must provide a mission statement for the proposed charter school and goals for student learning.

"There is nothing specific that we are looking for outside the application format," said Verdya Bradley, Manatee district's associate director of innovative programs and parental options. "There is no additional 'secret something.'"

After receiving the applications, the school board will have 60 days to review and vote on them. Bradley reviews the applications to make sure they are thoroughly completed before they are passed on to the school board for approval. If an application is not thorough or the school is not considered ready, its application can be delayed, school board chairwoman Karen Carpenter said.

If the school board denies the application, Flynn and his charter application team can appeal to the State Board of Education for approval.

"Applications are rigorous with high standards," Carpenter said. "It should be that way. We don't accept every applicant to be approved."

In addition to the mission statement, Rowlett also has to share a specific plan for governance. Rowlett will need to appoint a charter board, which can be made up of parents or other members in the community.

"They have to express interest, and then we will look into who would represent the school best," Flynn said.

Rowlett also has a budget committee made up of six parents, including Robert Sket, the chief financial officer of Braille Works in Tampa.

Embracing the future

The ballot results indicate the support that parents and teachers have for the conversion. An overwhelming majority -- 57 teachers and 480 parents -- voted in favor of the change. Only four teachers voted against the conversion.

"We portrayed our vision accurately to staff and parents," Flynn said. "Our goal is to continue to offer unique programs and teacher and parent empowerment."

Students currently attending Rowlett will not have to re-apply if the school becomes a charter, Flynn said.

The school will keep its current application process. Parents who fill out an application must tour the school. Applicants are chosen first based on proximity to the school, and the rest are chosen by a lottery. There will be no special requirements for students to be accepted if Rowlett becomes a charter.

Flynn said he expects enrollment to stay steady for next year and is anticipating about 900 students. If the school becomes a charter, Flynn said they plan to keep enrollment about the same.

That population is necessary for a charter school to be financially efficient, according to Bridges.

"Our conversion charter schools all tend to be running populations of 900 or more," she said.

Flynn said he hopes to keep all of Rowlett's current teachers, along with the school's magnet programs. While this means taking a risk by working for a new employer under a new health insurance plan, it saves teachers the risk of re-entering the job market in a district that is filled with staffing uncertainty.

Rowlett will stay with the Florida retirement system, which Flynn said is something not all charters do.

"I have already analyzed medical plans and looked at opportunities and benefit packages that are stronger for less money," Flynn said. "We will negotiate when we are closer to approval; these are just preliminary figures."

In the majority of Polk County's charter schools, Bridges said, staff stayed with the charter school.

Former Rowlett teacher Christina Jodoin, who still stays active and up-to-date with the school, is optimistic about the change.

"It will preserve the integrity of the school," said Jodoin, who taught fifth grade at Rowlett for five years. "It is a utopia for schools, and this will make sure that lasts a lot longer if the district keeps going the way it's going."

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081

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