Court gives charter school partial win against PBC school board

A state appeals court on Wednesday rejected the Palm Beach County School Board’s claim that it alone should decide which charter schools open in the county, handing a partial victory to a charter that the school board has been fighting for two years to prevent from opening.

But the court also ordered a state board that handled the charter school’s appeal to reexamine the case, raising the prospect of a new round of appeals and legal challenges.

The ruling is the latest turn in a legal battle between the charter school company, Charter Schools USA, and the school board, which in 2014 rejected the company’s bid to open a new school west of Delray Beach on the premise that the school would not be “innovative.”

Citing a lack of innovation to prevent a charter school from opening was a novel legal tactic, one that one school board member at the time called “an act of civil disobedience.” It made the standoff a closely watched case.

Charter Schools USA, which operates six other schools in the county under the name Renaissance, appealed to the state’s Charter School Appeal Commission, and the state Board of Education overturned the school board’s decision.

The county school board appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, arguing that the appeal process was an unconstitutional infringement of the board’s “exclusive power” to regulate local schools.

The three-judge panel upheld charter schools’ right to appeal to the state when their applications to open schools are rejected. It did not weigh in on the legal merits of the innovation argument.

It deemed the school board’s argument that the state appeals process is unconstitutional to be “meritless.”

“The Florida Constitution … creates a hierarchy under which a school board has local control, but the state board supervises the system as a whole,” the court wrote.

But the court ruled that the state will have to reconsider the appeal a second time because it didn’t provide enough information.

Judges concluded that the state’s appeal commission should have included “fact-based justifications” in recommending to the state Board of Education that it overturn the school board’s decision.

Instead, the court found, the appeal commission dismissed the school board’s decision flatly.

“Due to the omission,” the court wrote, we cannot meaningfully determine if the state board’s decision was supported by competent, substantial evidence.”

The court ordered that the appeal commission review the case again and send the state Board of Education a “fact-based justification” to consider. The board is not required to follow the appeal commission’s recommendation.

In a statement, the school district said its attorneys were studying the ruling and weighing the next steps. School Board member Frank Barbieri said he would like to see the case appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The non-profit corporation pushing to open the school on Charter Schools USA’s behalf hailed the ruling as a step toward the school’s opening.

“Today’s ruling sends a powerful message that our model is constitutional and ensures that students and parents in Palm Beach County will have educational choices, including a high-performing high school in the near future,” said Rod Jurado, chairman of the Florida Charter Educational Foundation.

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