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Palm Beach County School Board to fight in court for right to reject charter schools

The Palm Beach County School Board is taking its battle with a charter school chain to court, voting Tuesday to appeal for the right to block a charter school from opening west of Delray Beach.

The move could provide a test case for school boards across the state looking to exert greater control over the expansion of charters within their districts, but the effort is likely to be fought bitterly by charter school companies.

In December, the board rejected an application by the South Palm Beach Charter School, saying that the school was proposing no “innovative” programs. The school was to be operated by Charter Schools USA, a for-profit chain that already operates six schools in the county under the Renaissance franchise.

But in April, the Florida Board of Education overruled the school board’s decision, allowing the charter school to open after all.

Now school board members hope to overturn that decision in a court of appeals. Led by School Board Vice Chairman Frank Barbieri, board members voted unanimously to challenge the state’s decision, saying that doing so was in the best interest of students.

“We must look at the process,” board member Marcia Andrews said. “We must make sure our programs we’re bringing forth have innovation.”

School board members are worried about increased competition from charter schools, which are projected to enroll about 24,000 of the county’s roughly 185,000 public school students next year.

Barbieri pointed to language in state law that says that school boards that oversee a charter school “shall ensure that the charter is innovative and consistent with the state education goals.”

That language, he argued, should allow school boards to reject applications from charter schools that don’t promise to offer new curriculums or teaching techniques.

“I see nothing innovative about a Renaissance or a Franklin charter school,” he said, naming two local charter school chains. “What do they do that [traditional public schools] don’t do? It’s not innovative anymore.”

Ralph Arza, a charter school lobbyist, urged board members before the vote not to appeal the state’s decision, saying the legal battle would waste taxpayer dollars.

“We’re here to work in a spirit of cooperation with the school district,” he said.

School board attorney JulieAnn Rico said the board’s decision appears to be the first time that a school board will go to court in Florida to argue its right to reject charter schools for not being “innovative.”

“I think it will definitely provide one of the first legal decisions on this particular aspect of the statute,” she said.

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