After losing court battle to 2 charters, school board wants another go

After years of fighting in court to stop two charter schools from opening, the Palm Beach County School Board wants to go another round.

More than a year after losing their first appeal, board members voted unanimously Wednesday to file a second appeal of the state government’s decision that two charter schools should be allowed to open within the county.

The move likely means at least another year of taxpayer-financed appeals before the fate of the two schools is resolved.

In 2014 and 2015, board members rejected the applications of the two schools — South Palm Beach Charter School and Renaisssance Charter High School of Palm Beach — on the grounds that each one was not “innovative.”

The schools, to be located west of Delray Beach and west of West Palm Beach, respectively, would each have been operated by Charter Schools USA, a for-profit management company that operates six other county charters under the Renaissance name. The company is a regular target of board members’ criticism.

After the state overruled the board’s decision in each case, board members took their case as far as the state Supreme Court, arguing that the state constitution barred state officials from overruling a county school board’s decision about whether a charter school can open.

RELATED: Court gives charter school partial win against PBC school board

Their argument was rejected by an appeals court as “meritless” in January 2017, and the Supreme Court declined in September to hear an appeal of that decision.

Last month, the state Board of Education again ruled that the school board should let the two schools open.

Forced now to approve the schools’ applications or appeal the state’s decision once more, board members decided to appeal to the same appeals court that rejected their argument the first time.

“We still contend that the decision of the state board to not hear our issue is an invalid one,” School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw said in an interview Thursday. “School districts are the ones that have the responsibility for managing and approving charter schools, and it’s up to us to make that determination.”

Ken Haiko, chairman of the nonprofit board that oversees that Renaissance Charter School franchise, called the school board’s decision “disgraceful.”

“This is yet another decision by the Palm Beach School Board to waste taxpayer dollars in the courtroom instead of the classroom,” Haiko said in a statement. “It is disgraceful to continually watch adults put their needs ahead of the needs of students.”

Rod Jurado, chairman of the nonprofit that applied to open South Palm Beach Charter School west of Delray Beach, said the second round of appeals would “waste taxpayer dollars in the courtroom instead of the classroom.”

“How many times does the Palm Beach County School Board plan to throw taxpayer money away with frivolous attempts to take away the rights of parents as proven time after time in the courtroom?” Jurado said in a statement.

RELATED: Palm Beach County’s charter school standoff is getting personal

Board members voted unanimously Wednesday to appeal the state’s decision without discussing either case. JulieAnn Rico, the school board’s attorney, declined Thursday to comment on the board’s legal rationale.

Rico said that the school board would use its own legal staff to handle the appeal rather than hire a private firm.

School boards are generally required to approve charter schools that meet all requirements to open. Charter schools are privately operated but receive public money.

But county board members argue that a provision in state law allows them to reject applications from charter schools that they do not consider “innovative.”

In denying Renaisssance Charter High School of Palm Beach’s application in 2015, the school district wrote that its proposed teaching strategies “were not using new ideas or methods, or new ideas about how learning can be done in this district.”

To support its right to deny charter schools for not being innovative, the school board points to a legal provision that says that school boards that oversee a charter school “shall ensure that the charter is innovative and consistent with the state education goals.”

The state Board of Education rejected the county’s interpretation of the law. But when a state appeals court rejected the school board’s appeal last year, it declined to rule on the merits of the board’s interpretation of the “innovative” provision.

That may leave an opening for the school board to press this time for a direct ruling on whether it can reject a charter school for not being “innovative.”

“We’re approaching it from a little different angle from the accountability part,” Shaw said. “I really would like for a court to be in a position to take a big, serious look.”

The legal back-and-forth could become moot in November, when Florida voters will consider a state constitutional amendment that would establish a way for charter schools to seek authorization from a state entity, bypassing county school boards.

“That’s exactly what it is,” Shaw said. “This is a way for the charter school industry to get something that they want without any accountability.”

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