What’s next for Lincoln Memorial Academy? Manatee school board considers next steps

What happens after a judge rules on the takeover of Lincoln Memorial Academy?

The School Board of Manatee County sought an answer to that question on Tuesday. Robert Cohen, chief judge for the Division of Administrative hearings, will issue a decision by Monday, either upholding or reversing the school board’s July 23 termination of Lincoln’s charter.

If the judge rules in favor of Lincoln’s charter termination, the campus would revert back to a traditional public school run by the district. And if he grants the school’s appeal, Lincoln would have its charter and its governing board reinstated, leaving school officials to handle their existing debts.

District officials and school board members have continually said they wanted Lincoln to remain a charter school under new leadership, but that requires a person or group to submit a charter application, according to a presentation given to the school board on Tuesday.

The school could become a standard charter school, operated solely by the group that forms a successful application, said Frank Pistella, the director of district support. It could also become a district-managed charter school, one that maintains day-to-day freedom while paying the district to handle certain operations, such as accounting, hiring or meal services.

He said an independent governing board would still oversee the school, and that staff would be employed by Lincoln, reporting to the school’s principal.

“We didn’t say anything at all about it becoming a traditional middle school, and we didn’t say anything at all about a district-managed charter school,” board member James Golden responded.

“What I want to hear, very much in detail, is how we get this school returned to the community,” he continued.

According to Tuesday’s presentation, Manatee could issue a “request for proposals” and form a committee, including district staff and community members, to review the submissions. The group would then select an applicant to move forward in the process.

Charter applications are usually due by the start of February, but if the charter termination stands, Manatee would need a viable application by Dec. 20, allowing Lincoln to continue as a charter school in the upcoming school year, Pistella said.

He said a review committee would have to inspect the application and make its recommendation within three months. The school board would then have 70 days to finalize a contract, after it accepts the charter application.

Pistella offered to meet with possible applicants and explain the requirements. A successful charter application includes “ high probability of academic success, sound fiscal management and effective governance and oversight,” according to his presentation.

In response, Golden said he was only interested in one route, unless the other options became absolutely necessary. He urged fellow board members to elicit community input and, ultimately, a successful charter application.

“The same certainty that we exercised in taking control of this school on the 23rd is the same certainty that we ought to exercise in returning control of this school to the community,” Golden said.

A vast majority of parents and school employees voted to convert Lincoln from a traditional campus to a charter school, hoping for more freedom and creativity in the school’s operations.

But regardless of the judge’s decision, their dream may be damaged beyond repair, said Eddie Hundley, the school’s former principal.

“That community and those kids don’t want a charter school — they want their charter school,” Hundley said.

“There is no scenario where this is a win, because we get the school back, we have to undo everything that’s been done for the last two months,” he continued, addressing changes to the school’s curriculum and staff.

Before the board voted to terminate Lincoln’s charter two months ago, district officials said the school was plagued by mounting debt and state sanctions against Hundley, the former principal and the chief executive officer of Lincoln Memorial Academy Inc.

In the appeal, Lincoln officials said their due process rights were violated when the charter was abruptly terminated, following a last-minute addition to the July 23 school board agenda.

Judge Cohen will issue his opinion by Monday, and if the school district were to prevail, Lincoln could file a challenge in the Florida District Courts of Appeal.

“No matter who prevails, we’ve got a school that needs our support and needs our help,” board member Charlie Kennedy said.