Charters, school board clear air over funding, responsibilities

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – Representatives from the county’s five charter schools and members of the Indian River County School Board spent two hours Tuesday morning clearing the air over grievances both sides hold against each other. The issues included funding, student diversity at the charters and shared responsibilities.

Though the meeting ended on a relatively cooperative note, it didn’t start that way.

“Our concern is the way we’re treated as the stepchild of the district,” said Indian River Charter High School Chairman Gene Waddell.

He and another charter board member, North County Charter Elementary’s Ken Miller, both took issue with comments made at School Board meetings by member Debbie MacKay.

“You, in particular, tend to use the dais to accuse us of things out of not being informed of what we do,” Waddell said.

He explained that MacKay has publicly said the charters do not provide free and reduced price lunches or a food program – both of which Indian River Charter High offers.

Waddell went on to say that his concern comes from not having the ability to address and refute the board member’s comments at the time they’re made. Instead, the school has to respond to questions individuals ask of the school stemming from those comments.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” MacKay responded, noting the low number of students who receive free and reduced lunches at the charters compared to the traditional schools.

“I don’t care,” Waddell fired back in frustration. “We are a school of choice.”

He reminded the school board that the charters cannot force students to attend, nor can they force them to enroll in the lunch program even if they qualify.

Miller, of North County Charter Elementary, concurred, explaining that his school would have more students enrolled in the program if not for parental pride. He said he knows of students who would qualify for the assistance but their parents have not filed for it.

Miller went on to express displeasure over “MacKay’s rants” over charters not providing numerous services that the charters actually do – transportation, Exceptional Student Education, English for Speakers of Other Languages, among others.

“I’m tired of hearing it,” Miller said. “It’s ridiculous.”

MacKay recognized that the county’s charter schools all operate differently and that she would do better in the future to differentiate between the charters in her comments.

“I apologize to you,” MacKay said to the charter schools’ representatives.

Other issues that were raised during the two-hour discussion included:

The charters’ belief the school district is withholding funding from them;

The lack of communication to the charters when the district applies for pilot and test programs at the state level; and

potential poaching of students from both sides.

The charter schools raised concerns that the School Board had promised them funds for construction and equipment but have yet to deliver, along with the possibility of the district taking 5 percent of the charters’ funds to provide services.

Assistant Superintendent Michael Degutis told the group that he would review the question of the 5 percent levy.

Indian River Charter High Director Cynthia Aversa raised the issue of the lack of communication, telling the board that the charters are not notified when the district applies for pilot and test programs.

Charter schools are public schools, which can be selected by the Department of Education to participate in the special programs.

As such, Indian River Charter High has been chosen to participate in programs with as little as two days’ notice to prepare.

And as for possible poaching of students, both sides reported parents calling to say the other side had called and seemed to be trying to recruit their children.

Several charter schools members reported to the School Board that they have complied with providing lists of their enrollees to the students’ traditional schools, only to find out that those students were called by someone from the district – whether at the school level or higher.

The callers, according to the charter schools, confirmed the students were leaving and asked why the students were transferring out to the charter school. In some cases, the parents told the charter that they felt the caller was trying to dissuade them from making the move.

Superintendent Dr. Harry La Cava told the School Board and charter members that he was not aware of any such recruitment. However, he said, any calls would be for informational purposes – not recruitment – as principals at traditional schools prepare and plan for the next school year.

“I take exception to that,” La Cava said of the district being accused of recruiting students.

Board member Matt McCain told the board that he has heard from school district staff who have taken calls from parents who were upset charter schools had called trying to recruit their students.

He cautioned both sides, though, that recruitment might not be the subject of the call – it could be for the purposes of getting information only.

From there, the two groups discussed ways they could move forward and improve their relationship with one another.

School Board member Claudia Jimenez said the discussion from both sides could help resolve the building resentment.

“There is a lack of trust the charters have for the district and a lot of misunderstanding we have of the charter schools,” she said.

The School Board and board members of the various charter schools are expected to have another meeting in three months to see how the issues have progressed.

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