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State overturns local board, allows charter school to be built

State officials gave a new charter school permission Wednesday to set up shop west of Delray Beach, overuling the Palm Beach County School Board’s attempt to block the school from opening its doors.

The Florida Board of Education voted unanimously to grant the South Palm Beach Charter School’s appeal to be allowed to open, four months after county school board members sought to prevent its opening with the novel argument that its plans were not sufficiently “innovative.”

School board members are worried about increased competition from charter schools, which are projected to enroll about 24,000 of the county’s 185,000 public school students next year. The emptying-out of many traditional, district-run schools is causing financial strains on the school system, educators say.

But school boards can only deny charter schools’ applications if they fail to meet the criteria set out in state law. In this case, a state appeal panel concluded that the school board “did not have good cause to determine that the applicant failed to meet the requirements.”

Members of the state Board of Education overruled the school board without discussion, just moments after a lawyer for the charter school’s management company, Charter Schools USA, accused the school board of having “gone rogue.”

“The school board simply denied the application because it was tired of losing money to charter schools and didn’t want to approve any more charter schools operated by Charter Schools USA,” said Stephanie Alexander, a lawyer representing the company. Charter Schools USA currently operates six schools in Palm Beach County.

Given the delays in its application, its unlikely that the school could open before August 2016, said Jim Pegg, head of the school district’s charter school office.

At the Board of Education’s meeting in Tallahassee Wednesday, a school board attorney argued that board members’ Dec. 10 decision was legally justified because, she said, the school’s application hadn’t explained how it would meet the state requirements that charter schools “shall encourage the use of innovative learning methods.” It marked the first time the school board had raised the issue of innovation to deny a charter school application.

“Its denial was based on the lack of innovative learning methods,” attorney Laura Pincus said.

The state’s reversal of the school board’s decision was not unexpected. During the December meeting when board members decided to reject the charter school over the superintendent’s recommendation, some board members suggested they were likely to be overruled. Board member Debra Robinson characterized the ‘no’ vote, and others before it, as “an act of civil disobedience.”

Reacting to Wednesday’s decision, School Board Vice Chairman Frank Barbieri said he would urge fellow board members to appeal the decision in court, arguing that the school board “lawfully exercized its constitutional authority in denying this charter.”

“This charter school chain operates schools which do not meet (charter schools’) intent and purpose, but are operated solely as a profit-making enterprise using taxpayer dollars,” he said in a statement. “Perhaps they should call them McCharter Schools since they want to build them on every corner.”

Also Wednesday, the Board of Education upheld the school board’s decision to reject another charter school: Lake Worth Classical Academy, which proposed to teacher Latin and Greek language and literary classics.

The school board had determined the school’s plan was not financially viable, in part because it depended on winning private grants and donations. The school’s managers appealed, but the board of education unanimously vote to reject the appeal.

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