Rowlett, two other schools apply for charter status

eearl@bradenton.comAugust 2, 2013 

MANATEE -- Manatee County could have three new charter schools by the 2014-15 school year.

The school district received applications from Rowlett Elementary, iGeneration Empowerment Academy and the Manatee Y Technological High School by Thursday's deadline. The school board has 60 days to review the applications and vote on whether to accept the charters.

Rowlett Elementary submitted its charter application after parents and teachers voted for the conversion in June. If approved by the school board, Rowlett will be Manatee County's first conversion charter school operating under the name Rowlett Academy.

Parents, teachers and administrators at Rowlett decided to convert to a charter during the district budget freeze and after the superintendent "borrowed" from its internal school accounts. Parents and teachers said they want to ensure the school's many arts and technology student programs are safe from further budget cuts.

"Our intent in converting to a charter school is to benefit from the independence, organizational structure and flexibility that charter schools offer," wrote Rowlett School Advisory Council Chairwoman Debra Woithe in a letter to Rowlett Principal Brian Flynn.

Four new iGeneration Empowerment Academy locations are planned in Manatee, Collier and Broward counties this year as well as a second location in Palm Beach. Brian Sampson, director of business development for the start-up chain of charter schools, said the school's Palm Beach location has only been open a year.

Sampson said iGeneration Empowerment Academy is a sixth-through-12th-grade school that blends online education tools with onsite class time with teachers.

"Each student has an academic map or plan, and is able to progress at their own pace," Sampson said.

Sampson said the school will provide its expected 600 students with iPads, laptops and desktop computers.

"There will also be academic activities throughout the day such as art, theater and robotics that are tailored to the interests of the students," Sampson said. "They are not just sitting in front of the computer."

Sampson said they have not yet confirmed a Manatee County location, and finding a facility is a challenge.

"We are not just looking for a landlord, but we are looking for a partner that fits our budget an will give us a chance to increase enrollment," Sampson said.

The application and information for the Manatee Y Technological High School was not available for review Thursday because school officials said it came in at the deadline as district offices were closing.

With its conversion to an independent charter, Rowlett will take on the tasks of transportation, food service, and managing federal funds, data and technology, which the Manatee County School District previously managed.

Flynn said the Rowlett charter school budget will be around $6 million.

"I did my homework and looked at all the expenses and revenues we are expected to get from the state, and they matched up," Flynn said. "It's not a simple process, but a matter of what is revenue and what is expenses."

Charter schools are also required to show a budget reserve of 1.5 percent, which Flynn says Rowlett will exceed.

As a charter, Rowlett is expecting to keep enrollment around 900 students, which will generate $6,058,433 in state funding.

Deputy superintendent of instruction Diana Greene said the district withholds 2 percent to 5 percent of all state revenue for the first 250 students to cover the cost of services such as facilities maintenance, depending on the size of the school.

State money is distributed to charter schools twice a month. In Rowlett's case, that would be 24 payments of $250,000.

According to its application, Rowlett has budgeted $114,000 for busing and will contract with Manatee County School District transportation services.

Rowlett also plans to contract with the school district for food services.

The primary expense is staff salaries, which will increase 1 percent in Rowlett's second through fifth year of being a charter, according to the application. Flynn said all staff will have an opportunity to stay with a school if the charter is approved.

Rowlett has budgeted $60,000 per year per teacher and $265,000 for all teacher aides.

"I hope to qualify for grants in the future, but that cannot be part of budget because we do not know if we will get them," Flynn said.

Flynn hopes to bring in $175,000 through fundraisers, including an annual gala and silent auction and school festivals.

"I was impressed with how thorough the application process is," Flynn said Wednesday. "It really makes you think about your missions and the direction the school is going."

Rowlett parent Christine Sket said a review committee helped look over the application to make sure the mission statement and plan are clear. Sket said Sarasota County school district personnel also helped look over the application's budget and business sections.

Al Weidner, deputy chief financial officer of Sarasota county schools, said he took special interest in the application because his granddaughter attended Rowlett. He said a complete budget must be realistic.

"They have been in operation as a district school for quite a few years, so they looked at their expenditures and used those in the plan," Weidner said. "But I did not formulate their budget, I just reviewed what they were doing to make sure they weren't missing anything. In my opinion it looked ready, but the school board will have to evaluate it and have their team look it over."

Rowlett also had pro bono assistance from attorneys Mark Barneby and Fred Moore at Blalock and Walters. The team examined the bylaws required in the application. Bylaws set the number of members on the charter board and how long they serve.

The board will be responsible for adopting an annual budget, policies and hiring.

Verdya Bradley, director of school improvement, said a team of district department heads from curriculum, transportation, food service and finance, will review the charter applications. The superintendent and deputy superintendents are not part of the application review, which is led by Linda Guilfoyle, director of district support for charters and contracted sites.

Calls to Guilfoyle were not returned this week.

Greene said the district may bring in an outsider to review Rowlett's application to "make sure everything is done objectively."

Bradley has said there is no "secret something" the district looks for outside of the application format.

"They have to follow a model application that is put out by the state and meet those requirements," Bradley said.

Bradley said requirements include curriculum, a business plan with a budget and an organizational plan.

"They want to make sure the school will be a successful charter from curriculum to finance to governance," Flynn said.

Flynn said he is confident Rowlett will maintain its grades if its charter is approved, but he said that is not his priority.

"We do not build our curriculum around grades. We build it on meeting the educational needs of students," Flynn said. "School grades do not always reflect that. This is not just about being an A-B school."

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

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