Palm Beach County’s charter school standoff is getting personal

One by one, the parents took their turns speaking Wednesday, begging Palm Beach County’s school board to let their children’s charter school chain open a high school. “Don’t tear down what’s working,” said one mother. “Build on it and grow.”

But school board members rejected their request, denying the charter school company’s application by a 6-0 vote, primarily on the grounds that the school would not be sufficiently innovative.

It was at least the second time in the past year that board members had rejected a charter school for allegedly lacking innovation, a novel legal tactic that they argue they can use to block certain schools. That claim is now the focus of a closely watched court case.

But on Wednesday, what had been mostly a legal battle turned personal, as frustrated mothers turned out to recount how they found the right fit for their children at schools run by Charter Schools USA, the for-profit company that wants to open a high school west of West Palm Beach.

Being cast by parents as villains made board members visibly uncomfortable. It also seemed to mark a turning point in their protracted battle against the county’s charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run and now educate 20,000 students countywide.

Like many educators, school board members blame charter schools for straining traditional public schools’ financial health by diverting students – and the state money that accompanies them – from their campuses.

Some board members have particular disdain for Charter Schools USA, a large, for-profit chain that operates six K-8 schools countywide under the Renaissance Charter School franchise, educating about 4,000 students.

For months, since school board members rejected another Charter Schools USA school in December for not being “innovative,” the board’s standoff against the company has been mostly transactional. The board’s decision was overruled by the state, and it is now on appeal in state court.

But Wednesday’s turnout by parents, encouraged and supported by the charter school company, injected emotion into the legal standoff and brought explosive questions about school choice to the forefront.

“I feel like I’m being bullied. I feel like I have a gun to my head,” Orion Bascombe, whose daughter attends a Renassiance school west of Lantana, told board members Wednesday. “Because I live on this side of the street, I have to go to that school.”

Several parents said they enjoyed the relatively small size and accessibility of the Renaissance schools and what they called its family-like culture. They said it’s why they want their children to continue in the company’s schools at the high school level.

Why, they asked, would school board members want to stand in their way?

“Renaissance is by far the best choice I have ever made for my son,” said Raina Ruelle, who said her son’s learning disabilities kept him out of school for years but that he found a comfortable fit at Renaissance’s Wellington campus.

The parents’ testimony had a clear effect on board members.

Board member Debra Robinson listened with teary eyes to Ruelle, who said her son wanted to go to school despite a serious disability “because he wanted to be normal.”

“I’m a mother so I’m almost crying with you,” she said, “but as a board member we have to follow the processes that we outlined.”

The board members’ discussion led to odd contrasts. Moments after rejecting the proposed school as failing to be innovative, two board members said the school district’s own schools could improve by learning from Charter Schools USA’s model.

Robinson said the parents’ passion for the company’s smaller campuses underscored “the need to make sure that we have options for small schools” among the district-run schools.

Board member Karen Brill agreed, adding that mimicking Renaissance’s individual learning plans and frequent communication to parents might behoove the school district.

“I think what really struck me was about the personal learning plans, the daily reports to parents,” Brill told the parents. “I think the things you’re getting, yes, we need to do better in our district as well.”

Robinson asked school district officials to explain how they decide which charter schools are recommended for approval and which aren’t, since some applicants deemed to have deficiencies are approved regardless.

In response, the head of the school district’s charter school office said that schools with major deficiencies or several minor deficiencies generally aren’t recommended, but he conceded that “there really isn’t a set standard.”

Wednesday’s vote came just weeks after the school district antagonized charter school leaders by attempting to abruptly cut money for their disabled students.

That decision was sprung on charter schools in August, after the schools had planned their budgets. After an outcry and legal threats, school district administrators dropped their plans.

But charter school leaders say the confluence of events has created the perception that the school board is “ground zero” in a war against charter schools.

“They’re becoming ground zero because of the actions that they’re taking,” said Ralph Arza, a lobbyist for the Florida Charter School Alliance. “You start adding up every decision they make and it looks like an open war on charter schools.”

School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw, a former charter school principal, has sought to dismiss that perception, saying at a recent board meeting that it was “not at all an accurate portrayal of where we are as a school district.”

Charter Schools USA says it will appeal the board’s decision to the state, as it did the board’s decision in December to reject another of its proposed schools as not innovative.

In the meantime, board members may find themselves grappling with newly activist parents.

“I’m going to sit here,” Ruelle warned board members, “and I’m going to fight.”

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