Charter Schools Ready to Invade St. Johns County; Area Legislative Supporters Wonder Why Area Needs More Competition

Article excerpt

Byline: Marcia Lane

Three proposed charter schools are seeking to come into St. Johns County, including two run by what's been called "Florida's richest charter school management firm" and the third with ties to a Tampa area educational company.

Why they're coming to what's considered one of the best school districts in the state puzzles two charter school supporters from opposing political parties - state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.

Montford warned that the charter schools would have a detrimental effect on St. Johns County schools.

Charter school proponents say the schools help students gain better academic results through innovative programs, greater parent involvement and educational choice. They see charter schools as providing an opportunity for students in failing schools.

But St. Johns County schools aren't failing. Based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, the district has ranked No. 1 in the state for four years in a row.

Charter schools have to be not-for-profit, but they can be under a management group that can earn a profit.

Academica LLC, the umbrella organization for two of the schools seeking to open, is the state's largest charter school management company and one that has long "cultivated political influence" in Tallahassee, according to the Miami Herald. At least two Miami legislators have had their roles with the company questioned, the Herald reported.

The company has some top-performing schools.

The Herald report in 2011 that Academica Corp., had a total annual revenue of $158 million with more than $9 million a year in management fees for its South Florida charter schools. Those fees, noted the Herald in its in-depth series on charter schools, "ultimately come from public tax dollars." Through ownership in more than two dozen other companies, the company's owners, Fernando and Ignacio Zulueta, "control more than $115 million in South Florida real estate," the Herald reported. Property taxes showed the land was all exempt from property taxes as public schools, according to the Herald.

Representatives for Academica and for Kid's Community College Charter School St. Johns, the third proposed charter school, will make their presentations during an 8:30 a.m. Tuesday School Board workshop at 40 Orange St. Board members will be asking questions and seeking clarifications.

Kenneth Scarborough, who is with Kid's Community College in Riverview, said "KCC brand has a great model," adding he wanted to reserve comments until making the presentation. Scarborough is listed as founding board president for the Kid's Community College Charter School St. Johns.

Academica referred The Record to a public relations representative who did not return a call on Friday.

CHARTERS COULD COST DISTRICT $12.8M

When in full operation, the three proposed new charters would be able to handle more than 2,000 students and that would make a significant impact on the district, St. Johns County School Superintendent Joseph Joyner said.

"I think the scale and potential impact is much larger than any of the charters we've had [to date]," Joyner said.

The district would lose about $12.8 million yearly in state funds and need 200 fewer teachers based on the peak number of students that could go to the new charters.

Each student going to a charter pulls the Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) funding away from the district's traditional public schools. Fewer students also mean fewer teachers would be required in the traditional school system.

Thrasher expressed surprise when told of the charter requests and wasn't sure why they wanted to come to a successful district such as St. Johns County.

"Why fix or try to fix something that's not broken?" Thrasher said, noting people are "happy with the schools, they're performing well and they do a good job. …