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Flagler School Board Apprehensive of Changes in Law Affecting Charters, Recess and Religion

| June 20, 2017

The Flagler County School Board, seen here in a recent workshop, has been apprehensive about new education laws about to kick in. (© FlaglerLive)

The Flagler County School Board, seen here in a recent workshop, has been apprehensive about new education laws about to kick in. (© FlaglerLive)

Luckily for two school board members—Colleen Conklin and Janet McDonald—they were not in the room this afternoon when the school board attorney went through a long list of consequences for the district from a slew of education bills the Florida Legislature just passed. They were linked in to the school board workshop by phone, so they could if they wished make faces, roll their eyes and look as exasperated as they needed to without being seen, though they’d expressed much of that concern already in recent weeks as the impact of the bills was analyzed. One of those expressions was in the form of a unanimous vote protesting one of the bills and asking the governor to veto it. He didn’t.  

That bill, known as House Bill 7069, is altering the relationship between school districts and their charter schools. Charters now have a lot more autonomy, they owe even less accountability to the district than the little accountability they already owed, and they can benefit from a double-standard on financial and certification grounds. Charter schools nominally remain part of the district, and are still entirely publicly funded. But the bill grants them the autonomy of private schools in many regards.

 “As we build our legislative platform for next year we really need to identify some of these issues and advocate possibly for some type of glitch bill,” Conklin said. “It just doesn’t seem right that they would be able to do some of the things that have been outlined.”

“They’re still part of our district grade and they’re their own LEA. Okay,” Board Chairman Trevor Tucker said in disbelief. He was referring to a provision in HB7069 that allows charter schools to be their own Local Education Agency—essentially, their own school district—even as they continue to depend on the broader district for money, except for federal dollars: they can now seek those out on their own rather than submit their paperwork to the local school district for oversight. Yet as their own Local Education Agency, they would still have their school grade included in the broader district’s. And of course they would still benefit from other new provisions in the bill.

“Why would they even part of the Flagler County school district?” Conklin asked. “There you go Trevor, there’s another one for the legislative platform next year. It just doesn’t make sense.”

“I could potentially see that Imagine might want to be their own LEA,” Kristy Gavin, the school board’s attorney, said as she was going down the list of legislative changes.

Among other provisions of the bill relating to charter schools that traditional school districts objected to: school board’s authority to negotiate contracts with charter schools, which until now were the district’s means of ensuring that certain standards of accountability are followed, has been severely scaled back in favor of a universal contract. Local control, in other words, has been diminished.

Students in traditional public schools who take “blended” courses that mix online and classroom learning have to receive their online instruction in a classroom setting. Not so for charter students.

School boards must now appropriate a portion of their capital revenue—tax dollars—to charter schools for the charters’ own capital improvements, even though charters privately lease or own their buildings, independent of the school district. In other words charters now get to spend public dollars on private buildings, and should the charter school close or move, those buildings remain in private hands. The Flagler district is projecting a $570,000 pay-out to the county’s two charter schools. Those schools may choose not to spend that money on capital improvements and spend it instead on employee benefits such as sick leave or annual leave. Traditional districts are prohibited from using that money for anything but capital improvements.

Charter school organizations may establish operations in the immediate neighborhood of failing traditional public schools—the so-called “schools of hope” provision. “What we’re not sure about is whether low performing schools would also include low performing charter schools. That’s unchartered water,” Gavin said. Flagler County has not had failing schools in over a decade—except for charter schools, one of which was forced to close for consistently under-performing, and another closing on its own because of financial instability.

Charter schools may now provide their own form of certification program for candidates, outside the purview of the school district—another way of diminishing oversight in the name of charter schools’ autonomy.

Aside from the bill’s impact on charter schools, the board also heard about numerous other changes, such as the broadening of dual enrollment. Students may potentially enroll dually at their high school and at out of state private colleges and universities, though the details on that are sketchy. School safety dollars, which have been underwriting the district’s cops-in-schools program, will be allocated according to a new formula combining the state’s crime index with enrollment. Again, the local impact is not yet clear. The state’s Bright Futures scholarship program, which at one point provided full tuition to students meeting certain academic benchmarks (it no longer does) will award up to $6,000 a year, starting in 2020, to students who score 77 percent or higher on college-entrance exams. And school districts will have to find 100 minutes in the elementary school week to fit recess time, even though, in Tucker’s words, “right now we don’t have 20 minutes just sitting aside for students.”

“Wheel” classes in elementary schools, the popular equivalent of electives that sees students wheeled through a variety of classes like art and music in eight-week increments, may come in for a rethink because of the new recess mandate, board members were told.

A different bill, Senate Bill 436, expands the definition and allowances of students’ religious expression in public schools, and allows school staff to attach themselves to students through those expressions, ostensibly without violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment (which prohibits state sponsorship of religion in any form). The bill’s effect locally may be muted in one regard: while it allows for religious expression through clothing and insignia, the district’s uniform policy may make the wearing of clothing that displays religious signs impermissible. But the district will have to address other provisions of the bill, among them an allowance to students to make sectarian, or religiously inspired, speeches without constraints at public events such as graduations.

Gavin said school board attorneys across the state expect the bill’s constitutionality to be challenged in court.

Conklin, who was in California as she called in to both the 1 p.m. workshop and the 6 p.m. meeting, confirmed by text that the briefing on House Bill 7069 had provoked its share of facial expressions. McDonald, who also called in, was out of state on personal business, a district spokesman said.

The Bill-By-Bill 2017 Legislative Session’s Impact On Schools

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5 Responses for “Flagler School Board Apprehensive of Changes in Law Affecting Charters, Recess and Religion”

  1. anon says:

    Thank you Scott, Renner and Hutson. You lost my vote.

  2. A. Browning says:

    Recess Mom here. Happy to share a sample schedule with Mr. Tucker and his board. Or, they can look to Orange, Seminole, or Manatee – these districts implemented 20 minutes of daily recess a year ago in anticipation of the coming mandate, and not one reduced art or music time. It’s not rocket science. The “wheel” may need to be reinvented but our children are worthy of the short break each day. No time “just sitting aside for students?” Our districts are meant to serve students, not the other way around. Change is always hard but when we put the kids first we all win. As for the charter exclusion, we agree wholeheartedly and we welcome the board’s support and assistance in Tallahassee next session as we continue our work to ensure recess for ALL of Florida’s public elementary school students.

  3. A. Browning says:

    Flashback to February 5, 2016:

    “In Flagler County, students get 30 minutes of dedicated recess every day, exceeding the proposed mandate.

    No one could say for certain what Flagler does differently than so many other districts across the state.

    ‘We’ve long valued the importance of movement for elementary students,” said a spokesman for Flagler Schools. “We take great pride in working within the time frame and our schedules.'”

    Methinks recess was being reported as PE. Otherwise, problem solved.

  4. Rob F says:

    “First Amendment (which prohibits state sponsorship of religion in any form). ” what?? Where does it say anything about prohibiting state sponsorship? Look again:
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF!” Somewhere along the way, schools very much started prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

  5. Merrill Shapiro says:

    When the First Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, there were no public schools. Nonetheless, prayer in schools is encouraged… students who do so without school sponsorship. I, for one, hope students will pray in schools and follow the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 6 Verse 6 : ” But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Yes, Free Exercise is critical. Certainly, if students and/or staff wish to show their contempt for Matthew 6:6, they should not count on my hard-earned tax dollars to help them do so!

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