The Palm Beach County School Board overstepped its authority by imposing new rules on charter schools that require them to keep their distance from traditional public schools and prove that they are “innovative,” an administrative law judge has ruled.
The ruling this week throws into question several restrictions on charter schools that board members approved in May 2015, billing them as a way to “make a statement” against the rapid expansion of charters, which are publicly funded but privately managed.
The rules that the judge called inappropriate included requirements that charter schools must prove they are “innovative”; that they cannot open in the “vicinity” of a traditional public school with the same grade levels and programs; and that a majority of the members of a charter school’s board of directors must be county residents.
The ruling also may throw into question the school board’s decisions to reject plans for two charter school campuses in 2014 and 2015, largely on the grounds that the schools would not have been innovative.
Charter schools have been expanding steadily in the county. Last year 50-odd charter schools educated about 21,000 students countywide, or 11 percent of the public school system’s students.
School district leaders complain that charters undermine traditional public schools by drawing students and state funding away from them, making the schools less efficient and more costly to operate.
In a ruling this week, Administrative Law Judge June McKinney concluded that the school board’s charter-school restrictions amounted to “an invalid exercise” of its legal authority.
School boards do have some authority under state law to set up rules for charter schools, McKinney ruled, but the ones implemented were improper because they conflicted with or expanded upon rules already put in place by state lawmakers.
“Though it has been established that (the) school board has broad powers, the Legislature never intended to provide school boards unbridled reign to do whatever they wanted through rulemaking,” she wrote.
The stand started with a vote in December 2014 to reject a bid by Charter Schools USA to open a new charter school west of Delray Beach on the premise that the school would not be “innovative.”
That decision was overturned by state officials and a state appeals court. The school board has appealed the case to the Florida Supreme Court.
Now the fate of the board’s charter school restrictions are in the air as well. School board members are expected to discuss Wednesday whether to appeal this week’s ruling.
“We are holding an attorney-client session on Wednesday to discuss all options including appeal of the case,” said JulieAnn Rico, the school board’s general counsel.
The ruling was hailed as “a huge win for parents and students” by the chairman of the Renaissance Charter School franchise, which operates six charter schools in the county that are managed by Charter Schools USA.
The franchise’s bid to open its first high school in the county was rejected by the county school board in November 2015, largely on the premise that the school would not be considered innovative under the school board’s new rules.
“We are looking forward to putting this behind us and working side-by-side with the Palm Beach School District to bring new high quality educational options to the community,” Ken Haiko, chairman of the Renaissance schools, said in a statement.
“I believe all of the adults in this situation should truly keep the students as the focus for all decisions and this ruling gives parents a better opportunity for educational choice for their children,” he added.