With a single, stable exception—Imagine School at Town Center—charter schools have not had a good run in Flagler County. The latest victim: Easter Seals Volusia and Flagler Counties, whose proposal to open two small pre-K charter schools the Flagler County Board of Education rejected in a split vote Tuesday.
Global Outreach Academy abruptly closed over last Christmas after a single semester. The Flagler County School Board withdrew Heritage Academy’s charter last year for performing very badly. Palm Harbor Academy teetered on the same fate before improving enough to stay in business. And several applicants have either withdrawn or been turned down by the school board in the last couple of years, including the Flagler Academy of Arts and Sciences (withdrew last month, may reapply next year). Four charter schools had applied in 2012 with plans to open this school year. Three withdrew. The district’s Charter Review Committee had recommended approval of one of them , the Leona Group’s Flagler Charter Academy of Excellence. But the board rejected it, finding little assurance that the corporate backing of the organization was going to enable the sort of local representation the district wants on its charter schools’ governing boards.
Tuesday’s rejection was surprising in one regard: Easter Seals is a solid organization with deep roots in Volusia and Flagler, including contractual arrangements with the local school district. But it was unsurprising in other regards. The application still left many questions unanswered, including the sort of issues that proved fatal to previous applicants. And it proposed to directly compete with rather than complement services the district is already providing—services for which enrolled students command significantly more state dollars than do students without disabilities. Charter schools are privately run but publicly funded. Every charter school student leaving the traditional public school setting reduces the dollars available to the district’s traditional schools, shifting them to the private organization. Imagine School meanwhile has drained close to 1,000 students away from the district’s traditional schools.
The combined experiences of poorly performing schools, schools’ bad business decisions and the drain on the district’s own population base has resulted in a school board far more cautious and defensive when faced with the responsibility to approve a new charter. So it was Tuesday with Easter Seals.
“I think the concern is,” Superintendent Janet Valentine said, “are there enough children to have a viable program, because you don’t want to water those programs down so much that you don’t have funding and enough children to really support a good quality program.”
Easter Seals Volusia and Flagler Counties is a non-profit provider of therapy, education and other support services to children and adults with disabilities, including autism and mental disabilities. It’s long contracted with the Flagler school district to provide such services locally. Easter Seals applied to open two pre-K charter schools for 3 and 4 year olds: one at the Vince Carter Sanctuary in Bunnell, to serve nine children of mothers battling addiction, and another to serve 54 children not connected to the sanctuary, at a location yet to be determined.
Easter Seals was interested in launching its program principally because of its relationship with Stewart Marchman-Act Behavioral Healthcare, which recently moved its “Project Warm” to the Vince Carter Sanctuary in Bunnell. That’s a 52-bed program for pregnant or newly parenting mothers who are also struggling with drug or alcohol abuse. The program is open to the mothers’ children as well. Easter Seals had been providing child care services to the project when it was in Daytona Beach. When it moved to Bunnell, it moved the services with it.
“One of the things we talked about was providing the pre-K ESE program for those kids at project warm,” Lynn Sinnott, the long-time president and CEO of Easter Seals Volusia and Flagler Counties, said. “So that’s what spurred our interest in having a charter school up here. It was really that single classroom, and that’s really a priority for us. We believe that that’s a perfect niche for us.”
The population of 54 children is based on a separate pre-K program with six classrooms of nine children each, plus the one at Project Warm.
Flagler County School Board member Colleen Conklin would have approved the application had Easter Seals been willing to split its plan—provide the smaller school at Project Warm first, then explore the need for the larger school elsewhere. Sinnott opposed that approach, and the school board attorney noted that an application is approved or rejected whole, with negotiations later refining certain aspects of it.
The school board rejected the application in a 2-2 vote (a tie means defeat), with Conklin and John Fischer opposed, and Andy Dance and Trevor Tucker in favor.
The school board had numerous concerns about the application, including transportation, the securing of an actual site for the larger school, and the relatively high number of students Easter Seals proposed to serve, though the district already has a pre-K program for children with disabilities, what’s commonly referred to in school parlance as exceptional student education, or ESE.
Conklin was surprised about the application precisely because of the contractual arrangement between the district and Easter Seals, and the existence of a pre-K program that serves 40 to 50 students. “When I look at the number of 63, I’m concerned about viability, and having the numbers to actually support a program,” even if it includes non-exceptional education students, Conklin said.
Board members were also concerned about the low representation of Flagler on Easter Seals’ governing board. But physically operating out of Flagler would help the organization recruit local board members, Sinnott said. “We also are willing to have board meetings in Flagler County,” she said. But the board of the schools would be the same board that governs Easter Seals Volusia and Flagler—a 20-member board that currently has only one or two Flagler members, if that. (Andy Dance, the school board chairman, could not recognize any of the names on the board.) The board can grow to 30.
Transportation would not be offered: parents would be responsible. “These are 3 and 4 year olds,” Sinnott said, “and a lot of those kids are transported by their parents if they were typically developing, they would be transported by their parents to a pre-K program, and we’re just suggesting that that might be the same option for the children in the charter.”
The Project Warm site is Easter Seals’ preference for both of its proposed schools, but there is was site picked yet for the larger one, even though Easter Seals has identified three possibilities. That has been an issue with charter schools prospecting in Flagler in the past: they didn’t have their locations worked out, they rushed, and in Global Outreach’s case, they settled on the location at the Flagler County Airport in an 11th-hour arrangement that reflected both Global Outreach’s and the county’s desperation to fill a location. It didn’t help the school’s long-term viability. The district is always worried about similar repeats, because it is left to pick up the pieces when a school closes—and to be the punching bag for parents’ frustrations.
“Approving a charter without a facility, it just becomes problematic,” Dance said. He was also insistent on better board representation from Flagler. “I am just a little disappointed I think in the fact that there’s just an advisory committee and that the actual powers is in your board, it just seems underrepresented by Flagler County,” Dance said. But he ended up approving the application.
Sinnott was willing to negotiate with the district to get to the point where board members would be comfortable with the arrangement. But Conklin was not convinced. She wanted to start with just the Project Warm program. “I’m hung up on this other piece of it,” Conklin said, “and would very much like to support a site at Warm, where that program could begin. Maybe it’s because we’ve been burned. I’m just uncomfortable with the viability and the long-term outlook of what this could or might look like, for both organizations, yours and ours. So I’m kind of stuck there.”
The district may still be feeling the heat from recent burns.