Erica Breunlin @EricaBreunlin
A venture to introduce Volusia County's first charter high school has stalled after meeting opposition from the school district, prompting those behind the school to pull their application on the eve of its consideration by the School Board.
Backers of the Ivy Hawn School for the Arts and Sciences said they plan to resubmit an application next year for a high school designed to eventually serve 1,600 high school students at an Orange City campus off Veterans Memorial Parkway. It would have been the largest charter school in the county by far.
[READ: Volusia’s 1st charter high school marks shift in Florida education]
The school — which was to be accompanied by a middle school known as Ivy Hawn Middle School of the Arts and Technology for another 800 students — would have expanded the footprint of the Ivy Hawn Charter School of the Arts. The high-performing K-8 school in Lake Helen has a waiting list of more than 800 students.
But after withdrawing its middle school application from the district last week, the charter leadership team on Monday notified the district that it is also pulling its application for a high school.
The withdrawal will preclude the school from a district denial — one that was looking likely as Superintendent Tom Russell had been planning to request the School Board turn down the application during Tuesday’s board meeting.
“A denial in the public eye could be interpreted as negative and become contradictory to the positive relationships that have grown over the last eight years,” Greg Ruffin, chief operational officer of EdFutures, Inc., a for-profit company contracted to manage the nonprofit charter school, said in a text.
At the board meeting, scheduled for 4 p.m. at the district’s DeLand office, 200 N. Clara Ave., Russell will also recommend the School Board reject an application for another K-8 charter school, Volusia Charter Academy, which was also aiming to set up shop in Southwest Volusia, serving up to 765 students.
The denials are the culmination of an extensive review process by school district officials, who evaluated charter school applications in recent months according to their compliance with state mandates.
After combing through more than 1,000 pages between the two entities' applications and interviewing board members and management companies from each, the district found that only 10 percent of Ivy Hawn’s high school application met state standards while only 19 percent of Volusia Charter Academy’s application reflected state standards.
“Both applications demonstrate some serious deficiencies and concerns,” said Michael Dyer, general counsel for the district.
District officials were concerned about the capacity both charter schools would have to accommodate students with special needs, as both applications detailed the schools would have limited services for students with disabilities.
The district didn’t believe that Volusia Charter Academy’s proposed budget was sufficient, Dyer said, with worries about the potential for the school to accumulate debt and struggle with its fund balance.
District officials noted that Florida Educational Foundation, Inc., the charter holder and governing board of the Volusia Charter Academy, had not exercised proper due diligence in considering management companies beyond the one it selected, Charter Schools USA.
The district was concerned that, without experience operating a high school, EdFutures wouldn’t be ready to debut a high school while doubling its number of school sites in the county and increasing enrollment by 200 percent.
Based on student demographics at Ivy Hawn Charter School of the Arts, the district was skeptical that new Ivy Hawn schools would be able to serve a diverse body of students.
Were both schools to open in Volusia, they would collectively receive at least $12 million a year in taxpayer funding, according to Dyer.
“As a district, we work very hard to do our duty to the taxpayer and students to perform a thorough review,” he said, “and this is a serious matter because you’re talking about individuals who are proposing to open a school to serve our students.”
Not giving up yet
The red light Ivy Hawn leaders ran into this year hasn’t dimmed Ruffin’s determination to open a charter high school by August 2019.
Ivy Hawn intends to involve its lawyers in revising the application, Ruffin said, noting that many of the district's objections were over legalities, not the school's plans for academics.
“We’re sitting there (at the August interview) not knowing the law as well as we probably should,” Ruffin said. “We really need to get our attorneys involved.”
Moving forward, Ivy Hawn and EdFutures plan to keep middle school grades at their existing campus in Lake Helen, building more classroom space to open up seats for 100 to 200 students over the next two to three years.
“The more we thought about it, we didn’t want to ruin or mess up a really successful school in any way,” Ruffin said, explaining middle school students are able to serve as mentors for their elementary school peers.
The school leaders are also considering educating ninth-graders in their Lake Helen facility for a year as they make their way through the charter school application process again.
In a letter to Russell, Ivy Hawn High School Board members expressed disappointment “in numerous inaccuracies and misinformation” aimed at both the application and Ivy Hawn’s K-8 school. The letter, signed by Terri Hoag, president and chairperson of Ivy Hawn High School, Inc., states that in the coming months, charter school officials will address the district and School Board attorney about the issues.
Leaders of Volusia Charter Academy said they will likely appeal should the Volusia School Board deny their charter school application on Tuesday. Charter schools that are not approved in a school district are entitled to appeal in front of the State Board of Education.
“We will be disappointed if the school board denies the application because we believe it meets state requirements,” Ron Jurado, chairman of the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, wrote in an email. “We have proven time and time again that our public charter schools bring an excellent option for all students.”
Volusia School Board member Ida Wright isn’t opposed to more charter schools moving into the county so long as the options they hold are distinct from what area public schools can offer. But Wright also trusts the analyses of district personnel.
“By the time the board receives the recommendations, the staff have done their due diligence,” she said. “They’ve helped as much as they can give directions.”
Board Vice Chairwoman Linda Cuthbert also welcomes “healthy competition” from charter schools but warns that they aren't held to the same standards as traditional public schools.
“I don’t see as much transparency at the charter school system,” Cuthbert said, “and that’s what the public has to be aware of.”
Source : http://www.news-journalonline.com/news/20171023/ivy-hawn-board-withdraws-volusia-charter-school-applications