Ten PBC schools to open Aug. 14 with new principals

Avossa visits Forest Hill HS on first day of 2016/17 school year. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Ten Palm Beach County public schools will not only welcome new students when they open Aug. 14, they will welcome new principals.

The 10 schools and their new principals: 

  • Boynton Beach High School: Guarn Sims
  • Forest Hill Elementary School: Scott McNichols
  • Freedom Shores Elementary School: Dan Smith
  • Jeaga Middle School: Anthony Allen
  • Jerry Thomas Elementary School: Jeff Eassa
  • Jupiter Elementary School: Patricia Trejo
  • Lake Worth High School: Elvis Epps
  • Turning Points Academy: Kevin Gatlin
  • Woodlands Middle School: Enrique Vela
  • West Riviera Elementary School: Robin Brown

The number of changes is shy of the marks set in 2015, when 16 schools got new principals, and 2016, when than number was 13.

For Boynton Beach and Lake Worth high schools, the change in leadership has been a very public affair.

District officials said veteran administrator Guarn Sims would replace Fred Barch at Boynton Beach High after student achievement faltered and community activists began calling for a change.

Guarn Sims, has been tapped as Boynton Beach High School’s new principal. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

Lake Worth High saw its principal George Lockhart removed from campus last December amid an investigation that eventually concluded among other things that Lockhart asked teachers to do his son’s math work, pressured teachers to change students’ grades and charged students to attend school pep rallies.  He’s now working in the district’s charter school office.

Lake Worth High Principal Elvis Epps

The district tapped Elvis Epps from its Office of Professional Standards to step into the job as interim principal in February and now the ‘interim’ is dropped from that title.  Learn a little more from this  Palm Beach Post Q & A with Epps. 

We also have Q & As with Dan Smith at Freedom Shores Elementary and Jeff Eassa, the new principal at Jerry Thomas Elementary.






A record number of PBC elementary schools are on Florida’s “Low 300” list

Stock photo

A record number of Palm Beach County schools have fallen onto the state’s list of the 300 elementary schools with the lowest reading scores in Florida, meaning more than $2 million in extra costs for the county’s public schools as educators extend the school day on more campuses.

The number of county public schools on Florida’s “Low 300” list jumped from 20 last year to 29 this year even though reading scores improved overall countywide. The schools on this year’s list include 27 school district-operated schools and two charter schools.

The spike is forcing the school district to shift money away from planned raises for teachers and other employees, administrators say. By law, the 300 schools with the lowest reading scores statewide are required to extend the school day to provide extra reading time, which requires extra stipends for teachers.

The district estimates the extended days will cost $2.5 million more than last year because the number of affected schools grew.

Last year a school district study found that in the program’s first three years, extended-day schools in most cases showed little or no significant progress, raising questions about the effectiveness of the extra reading time.

>> RELATED: Extra classes doing little to help Palm Beach County’s weakest readers

With the number of Low 300 schools falling in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Palm Beach County now has more schools on the Low 300 list than any other Florida county besides Hillsborough.

Overall, reading scores improved in the county’s schools last year. But those improvements were not across the board.

Many elementary schools saw their students’ performance worsen significantly, including 16 schools that fell onto this year’s Low 300 list after not being on it last year.

Eight district-operated schools on last year’s Low 300 list improved slightly but not enough to move off the list this year.

Three district-operated schools that had been on last year’s list performed worse despite the extended school day: Barton Elementary, Rolling Green Elementary, and Belle Glade Elementary.

And in a sign of rising achievement across the state, one school that wasn’t on last year’s list – Westgate Elementary – fell onto the list this year even though its reading performance improved slightly.

By far, the two lowest-performing county schools on the list were both charter schools: Belle Glade Excel Charter School, where test scores showed just 6 percent of students were reading on grade level, and Learning Path Academy, where just 11 percent of students scored on grade level.

Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen said it was difficult to point to a single cause for the spike in schools on the state’s list but said that the county has long struggled with raising reading achievement for elementary students.

“That is something that we are concerned about,” he said. “The third grade (language arts exam) has been our soft spot, but we are doing well in math and science.”

He pointed out that the state’s Low 300 list – now in its fourth year – is based solely on reading scores, and the county’s elementary students have seen stronger growth in math and science. When those scores are considered, he said, the county does much better relative to other Florida school districts.

Indeed, one school on the Low 300 list, Lake Park Elementary, earned a B grade from the state this year.

>> RELATED: High costs, few benefits to longer days at struggling PBC schools

The state creates its Low 300 list by adding together the percentage of students earning a proficient score on the state language arts exam and the percentage of students making significant gains on the exam, then ranking each elementary school based on that figure. The lowest 300 schools statewide end up on the state list.

The Legislature implemented the extended-day rule in 2012 in an attempt to guarantee that students in schools with the biggest reading challenges would receive more reading instruction.

Initially set up for the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools, it was expanded for the 2014-15 school year to the bottom 300 schools.

The program has been criticized by some educators as costly and ineffective.

It requires nearly all students at the affected schools to stay in school for an extra hour, even most students already reading on grade level. Educators say that makes it more difficult for them to target the weakest readers.

The program also does nothing for struggling readers at schools that don’t happen to fall onto the list.

In the program’s first few years, the county extended the school day by a full hour at Low 300 schools.

But in a cost-saving move administrators decided last year extend the school day by a half-hour instead. The half-hour extensions will continue this year.


Palm Beach County schools on the “Low 300” list































PBC school board moves to bar officials from asking students not to speak at meetings

Lake Worth High School freshman Miguel Cardenas says administrators pulled him from class to ask him not to speak at a county school board meeting last month. He spoke anyway. “You don’t let anything stop you, especially fear,” he said later.

Palm Beach County School Board members gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a rule that bars school district employees from discouraging students, teachers, parents or other members of the public from speaking at school board meetings.

Board members voted unanimously to give a preliminary go-ahead to the prohibition, which was triggered by a Palm Beach Post article about two school district administrators’ efforts to discourage a group of parents and students from speaking at a board meeting in January about a controversy at Lake Worth High School.

>>RELATED: Pulled from class: How PBC public schools discourage public dissent

The new rule would prohibit school district employees from contacting people who have signed up to speak at board meetings “for the purpose of dissuading, interfering or discouraging the speaker from addressing the board.” The rule faces a second vote before becoming official.

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union had asked the board to prohibit all contact between school district officials and people who sign up to speak at school board meetings.

That request was seconded Wednesday by the president of the county teachers union, Justin Katz, a former American government teacher, who said even quizzing people about why they want to speak out can be perceived as intimidation.

>>RELATED: After Post report, PBC schools may be barred from pressuring students not to speak

“It scares me when the government calls someone seeking to exert their First Amendment rights,” he said.

But School Board General Counsel JulieAnn Rico pointed out that banning contact between administrators and people who express concerns about problems in the school could create a host of unintended consequences and make it difficult to address easily resolved problems.

“It’s important for the district to be able to make those contacts,” she said.

Rico said her office will design a script that administrators can read when contacting people who have signed up to speak at board meetings.



After Post report, PBC schools may be barred from pressuring students not to speak

Lake Worth High School freshman Miguel Cardenas says administrators pulled him from class to ask him not to speak at a county school board meeting in January. He spoke anyway. “You don’t let anything stop you, especially fear,” he said later.

Palm Beach County public school officials would not be allowed to discourage students, teachers, parents or other members of the public from speaking at school board meetings under a new policy to be considered Wednesday.

The proposal comes five months after The Palm Beach Post reported that two school district administrators pressured students and a parent to cancel plans to speak out at a board meeting about a controversy at Lake Worth High School.

The Post’s article drew the attention of attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, who quietly pressed school district officials to do more to shield students from potential intimidation by administrators.

The new rule, which school board members will take a preliminary vote on Wednesday, prohibits school district employees from contacting people who have signed up to speak at board meetings “for the purpose of dissuading, interfering or discouraging the speaker from addressing the board.”

UPDATE: Board members gave preliminary approval to the new policy Wednesday.

The proposal also declares that the school board “recognizes the right of Palm Beach County School students, as with all members of the public, to speak at board meetings.”

“Students,” it reads, “shall be permitted and welcome to speak at board meetings.”

>>RELATED: Pulled from class: How PBC public schools discourage public dissent

There’s a loophole, though: Officials would still be allowed to quiz students and others about why they signed up to speak at board meetings, so long as the intent is to try to “resolve any district issue, including the subject matter of the speaker’s intended remarks.”

That loophole made it into the proposal over objections from the ACLU, whose attorneys say that it still would allow administrators to intimidate students without explicitly discouraging them from speaking.

“We want to encourage kids to talk and we don’t want them intimidated,” said Andrew Chansen, a Boca Raton attorney who does legal work for the ACLU. “It’s a public forum, and we just want them to be able to express their views, whatever they may be.”

An excerpt from the proposed policy.

ACLU attorneys became involved in the case after The Post published an article in February describing the school district’s treatment of Miguel Cardenas, a 15-year-old freshman at Lake Worth High School.

Cardenas had signed up to speak at a January school board meeting about the school district’s decision to remove an assistant principal, Terence Hart, from the school.

Regional Superintendent Frank Rodriguez

On the day he was scheduled to speak, Cardenas was pulled from his English class and sent into a private meeting with two school district administrators.

The two administrators – Frank Rodriguez, a regional superintendent, and Geoff McKee, an assistant regional superintendent – quizzed Cardenas in the principal’s office about why he had requested to speak.

Cardenas said that they then pressured him not to speak to the school board, telling him that he could trust them to fix the problems on campus and that, if he spoke out, it would only hurt the school.

“They tried to give me other options,” he told The Post in February. “They said I would give the school a bad reputation.”

Rodriguez denied pressuring Cardenas to cancel his speaking plans, saying that he merely wanted to learn what Cardenas’ concerns were.

But two parents reported similar interactions with Rodriguez and McKee before the same board meeting, saying that the administrators had pressured either them or their children to cancel their speaking plans as well.

“They were very pleasant and not threatening in any way but did ask me to let them handle this internally and not speak at the meeting,” said Kristina Carmichael, the mother of a Lake Worth High School student.

Records released Tuesday by the school district show that ACLU attorneys began requesting records and policies regarding the public-comment process at school board meetings this spring.

An excerpt from the proposed policy

School board attorneys invited Chansen, in his capacity as an ACLU attorney, to give feedback about potential amendments to the school board’s policies regarding public comments at board meetings. Generally, any member of the public is allowed to speak for three minutes at the regular board meetings each month.

In May, Chansen requested that the school board prohibit school district employees from contacting people who have signed up to speak at board meetings.

“With the kids, we just didn’t want them to contact them at all,” Chansen said Tuesday. “I think a phone call itself is intimidating. They’re going to wonder if that means an F.”

School board attorneys rejected that request. In a statement to The Post, School Board General Counsel JulieAnn Rico said that barring school employees from contact with particularly students would improperly constrain the teachers and administrators.

“The district has to be in a position to contact and communicate with students in the normal course of business,” Rico said. “While we are a public body and certainly recognize the need for public access at public meetings, we are first and foremost here for the students and must not be constrained in our interactions with students, parents and employees in fear of inadvertently violating a policy.”

The new policy faces an initial vote from school board members Wednesday. It would need to be approved a second time to become official.

Under the new rule, district administrators could still have pulled Cardenas from his classroom and questioned him in an attempt to “resolve” his reasons for speaking.

They would not have been allowed to discourage him from speaking. But so long as they never apply explicit pressure, nothing in the policy appears to stop an administrator from grilling a student about his or her speaking plans, Chansen said.

“Our position is that they should not intimidate any speaker and there’s no reason that they should talk to them beforehand,” he said. “They should have better things to do than chill people up there talking. I don’t know what the reason is to call people up, especially kids.”



PBC school board calls for suing state over charter-friendly law HB 7069

Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 7069 into law last month. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

The Palm Beach County School Board gave unanimous support Wednesday to a proposal to sue the state over charter school-friendly legislation signed by Gov. Rick Scott last month, authorizing its attorneys to study the best strategy for a legal challenge.

Board members stopped short of agreeing to file a lawsuit but directed their legal staff to consult with an private law firm and begin researching the best way to proceed with court action over House Bill 7069, a sweeping bill that includes a requirement that county school districts share property tax revenue with charter schools.

>> RELATED: Avossa calls for suing the state over charter-friendly law HB 7069

The school boards in Broward and St. Lucie counties have already voted to proceed with lawsuits, and more than a dozen other school boards have been conferring about ways to challenge the new law, officials said.

Palm Beach County School Board members (from left) Frank Barbieri, Marcia Andrews and Debra Robinson (Palm Beach Post file photo)

Board members Wednesday seemed conflicted about whether to participate with other school boards in a joint lawsuit or sue on their own, but they left no doubt about their intentions to challenge House Bill 7069 in court.

JulieAnn Rico, the school board’s general counsel, told board members that she had already selected a prominent private attorney to research a potential lawsuit and, if needed, move forward with legal action: Jon Mills of Boies Schiller Flexner.

Mills is a former speaker of the Florida House and former dean of the University of Florida’s law school.

>> RELATED: Gov. Scott just signed HB 7069. Here’s what it does

Rico reminded the board of the difficulties of challenging the constitutionality of state actions in court, obliquely referencing the school board’s recent string of legal defeats over its efforts to bar two new charter schools from opening and to impose new restrictions on charters throughout the county.

“This board has already had the experience of taking on a constitutional challenge and its complexities,” she said.

Of the potential lawsuit over House Bill 7069, Rico added: “We know that it’s complex, it’s important and it’s a really big deal.”

>> RELATED: Charter school advocate: With lawsuit talk, Avossa aims to “wage war” on charters

House Bill 7069, a sweeping 274-page education overhaul, makes a host of changes to Florida’s public-school landscape, including eliminating a state math exam, requiring most public elementary schools to offer daily recess and providing more money for teacher bonuses and for a school-voucher program for students with disabilities.

Teachers unions and school district leaders were enraged by provisions that they say give charter schools a greater competitive advantage over traditional schools: measures that force school districts to share construction money with charter schools and that create financial incentives for new charters to open and compete with low-performing public schools.

Board members seemed unfazed my the prospect of a legal challenge.

“These are issues that we think should be controlled by local school districts, not the state,” School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw said.

Board member Marcia Andrews called House Bill 7069 “a monster that needs to be really, really answered to by all school districts.”

“We must do something,” she said. “It’s really important when we look at this bill.”

School Board member Frank Barbieri said that, instead of a joint lawsuit, it may make more sense for each county school board to sue separately, a tactic that could make it more difficult for the state to defend itself in court.

“If we are going to sue, which we certainly should, we should make it as difficult and painful for the state legislature as they have made it for us to operate this school district, the highest performing large urban school district in Florida,” Barbieri said.

In Palm Beach County, a provision requiring school boards to share with charters property tax revenue dedicated to construction and maintenance will cost the school district an estimated $10 million next year alone, or about 2 percent of the district’s roughly $400 million capital budget.

That figure is expected to rise as the number of charter schools grows.

This month, Broward County’s school board voted to spend $25,000 to begin putting together a plan to take legal action against the state.

Broward officials argue that the law illegally restricts the school district’s sovereignty and improperly gives charters a portion of property tax proceeds They allege the bill also violates a requirement that legislative bills focus on a single subject.

Not everyone in the room was in agreement with the calls for a legal battle.

Lynn Norman-Teck, executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance, told board members that it was unfair to deny charter schools a share of the property taxes that school boards collect for construction and maintenance.

Charter school parents pay property taxes along with parents whose children attend traditional public schools, she pointed out.

“We believe that education funding should follow the child,” she said. “All students deserve to be in a safe facility that can meet their educational needs.”


Where would recess fit? See Palm Beach County’s sample schedule

Daily recess in Florida’s public elementary schools is now law. What will that look like when the first bell rings in August? It’s still unclear – but it doesn’t have to be outside, according to a one-page memo to superintendents that went out last week.

“This law does not specify the location where recess must be provided. The recess minutes could be provided indoors or outdoors,” the memo from the State Department of Education reads.

It’ll be up to the school district or even principals at each campus to iron out details.

And that’s just the way the parents who pushed for this law for the last two years want it.

“That means excuses like ‘We don’t have the space’ or ‘It’s raining outside’ aren’t an excuse,” said  Angela Browning, a mother of three from Orlando and a leader among the so-called recess moms.

“We realized that saying it had to be outdoors wasn’t realistic. We didn’t want to micromanage, we wanted to set expectations and leave implementation to the schools and teachers,” Browning said.

>> RELATED: Ah, free time! School recess should be mandatory in Florida schools, not just folded into P.E.

But what truly pleases Browning and her fellow parents who made seemingly endless pre-dawn excursions from Orange County to Tallahassee to advocate for free-play in the school day is another line in that memo – the one that directs each superintendent to sign an assurance that the recess mandate is being met in his or her school district.

That assurance is due to the state by Sept.1 of the school year.

Palm Beach County School District Chief Academic Officer Keith Oswald said he was hoping for more guidance from the state, but the five paragraphs issued Friday may be all he gets.


Wednesday, Oswald and his staff tried to address some of the biggest questions, including:

How will teachers squeeze 20 consecutive minutes of free play into an already packed day?

The elementary school day in Palm Beach County is six hours and five minutes long – the brevity of which has been a sore point for Superintendent Robert Avossa.

>> RELATED: Munoz: Mandatory recess, long overdue for elementary school students

Oswald offered principals two sample schedules.

The samples manages 20 minutes in a day while still offering , an hour of math, 150 minutes of reading and language arts, a 30 minute lunch, as well as fine arts and P.E.  In one schedule recess time was found by shaving 20 minutes from science or social studies on any given day.

Another alternately pulled from science or social studies twice a week and from the hour long writing block three days a week.

“It’s been a challenge. Obviously something’s going to have to give. We don’t want to cut fine arts. We believe in enrichment for the kids, and we need to feed our kids too,” Oswald said. Schools also must contend with state law required 150 minutes a week of PE and requirements for reading and language arts. “That leaves core academics, so we are going to have to look carefully at the quality of time.”

Timing  was a common concern Browning and recess advocates heard throughout their campaign.

Their first go at legislation in 2016 failed. And in the year that followed, Browning’s group representing parents in multiple districts went back to their school boards seeking local policy changes.

Three counties: Orange, Pinellas and Manatee acquiesced.

Pinellas’ school day is just as short as Palm Beach County’s and they’ve made it work, said Browning, whose three sons are in elementary school in Orange County, where school is  6 hours and 15 minutes long on every day but Wednesday, when school dismisses an hour earlier.

The failure of any other districts to make change on their own proved to be ammunition for the parents backing recess.

“We were very clear. We felt this should’ve been handled locally, but when they didn’t , that’s when it’s incumbent for our legislators to step in,” Browning said.


In the spring, lawmakers delivered the recess guarantee as part of the massive education package known as House Bill 7069, which covered everything from eliminating the Algebra 2 end-of-course exam for high schoolers to teacher bonuses.

The law, however, is in the crosshairs of public educators, including Avossa, because of  what they contend is its generosity to charter schools at the expense of district coffers.

When it comes to mandated recess, charter schools are exempt.

But beginning with the new school year, each district-run school must offer 20 consecutive minutes of recess, which must be unstructured free-play as opposed to say games directed by a teacher.

District policy has long recommended, but not required, schools offer daily recess. By parent accounts the reality varied from class to class and school to school. They have told the school board that teachers have leveraged recess, threatening to withhold it for bad behavior or offer it only as a treat for good behavior, etc. That is no longer an option.






Charter school advocate: With lawsuit talk, Avossa aims to “wage war” on charters

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa is expected today to ask school board members to consider suing the state government over a new law that requires county school districts to steer more money to charter schools.

Lynn Norman-Teck

One group, unsurprisingly, is not keen on the proposed lawsuit: charter school advocates and operators.

In response to Avossa’s declaration last week that the county’s public school system has “an obligation” to sue over the disputed legislation, House Bill 7069, the Florida Charter School Alliance has submitted a rebuttal.

Here is the rebuttal from Lynn Norman-Teck, a charter school parent and executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance:

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa will ask the School Board to continue to penalize families who support school choice.  The superintendent wants to join Broward County in a lawsuit to stop a new education law and funding formula that treats all public school students equally – whether they attend a district-run school or choose to attend a charter school.


Instead of making a rash decision favoring inequality, here are some facts that the superintendent and the board should remember:


  • Charter schools are public schools.


  • Charter school students are public school students.


  • The Palm Beach County School Board was elected to work on behalf of all public school students – that includes the thousands of students who attend public charter schools that the very same Palm Beach County School Board authorized and supervise.


  • Charter school parents are taxpayers who contribute to the property tax dollars used for schools – yet the superintendent wants to withhold those funds from their children, their teachers, and schools merely because they attend charter schools.


  • The sales tax increase that recently passed in Palm Beach County will raise an estimated $1.3 billion for public education, but not a penny will go to students who attend a public charter school.


For more than 20 years, public charter schools have been a vital part of Florida’s system of public education.  Unlike district-run schools, every charter school must continually prove itself. If families don’t select them, they close. And if they fail to make academic progress, they’re shut down. 


These accountability measures – along with impressive academic achievement, as featured in a Florida Department of Education report that shows that charter schools have made more learning gains (in 82 of 96 comparisons) and higher grade-level performance (proficient in 65 of 77 comparisons) statewide than district-run schools – should be lauded.


Instead, the Palm Beach County superintendent wants to wage war on the very schools that are helping students achieve academic excellence.


The lawsuit is wrong. It is an attempt to choke parental choice and penalize families who choose to attend a public charter school. 


Education dollars, whether allocated by the state or raised locally, should be allotted to the child they are earmarked for and not find their way into courtrooms in an effort to maintain a funding formula that treats one select group of students better than others.


This $21 million PBC school is just 16 years old – and it’s closing

Odyssey Middle School (Palm Beach Post file photo)

UPDATE: Palm Beach County School Board members voted unanimously Wednesday to close Odyssey Middle School at the end of the upcoming school year.


Palm Beach County School Board members are expected to vote Wednesday to shut down Odyssey Middle School next year, officially pulling the plug on the half-empty school just 16 years after opening it.

Superintendent Robert Avossa told board members in May that he wanted to close the school at the end of the upcoming school year and lease the campus to South Tech Academy, a charter school. The school’s enrollment has fallen by nearly half in little more than a decade.

Board members indicated support for the decision but did not take a formal vote at the time.

If approved Wednesday, it would be the county’s first closing of a traditional public school in more than a quarter-century.

Students attending the school this year would be reassigned to nearby middle schools in August 2018. The district is also proposing to build a new middle school further west, next to Sunset Palms Elementary on Boynton Beach Boulevard west of Florida’s Turnpike.


In their May meeting, board members spoke regretfully about the proposal to close Odyssey Middle, but Avossa called it a necessary step after years of families abandoning the campus.

“Clearly the community is sending us a message about that school,” Avossa said in May. “With all the choice options that are available, they’re not picking Odyssey.”

RELATED: Dwindling student body could see Odyssey Middle School close

The school did not always struggle to fill seats. In its first few years, its enrollment was nearly double what it was last year, when 730 attended.

Built for $21 million, Odyssey Middle opened in 2001 west of Boynton Beach to alleviate crowding at nearby middle schools. In its early years it became, for a time, one of the state’s first public middle schools to separate students by gender.

But by the beginning of this decade, white middle-class families had begun leaving the school, which pulls students from neighborhoods all the way from the coast to gated communities west of Florida’s Turnpike.

The trend picked up with the opening in 2013 of a nearby charter school, Somerset Canyons Academy.

Today, district officials say 600 students zoned for Odyssey Middle choose instead to go to charters, with most of those students attending Somerset Canyons.

In just 13 years, Odyssey Middle’s student enrollment has fallen by nearly half, from 1,360 students in 2003 to 730 last year. With room for 1,490 students, the school is less than half-full.

RELATED: West Boynton parents object to sending kids to Odyssey Middle, citing safety concerns

“The reasons I hear for not sending them in the past years is the school is focused on the lower 25 percent, but they don’t have programs for the higher (performing) children,” School Board member Karen Brill, whose district includes the school, said in May.

Over the years, some parents in the western suburbs have raised another reason for dissatisfaction with the school: They don’t want their children attending school with students from coastal Boynton Beach, which includes many poor and predominantly black neighborhoods.

“We want a school that reflects our neighborhood, that reflects where we all live and not some of the more crime-ridden neighborhoods to the east,” a parent told The Palm Beach Post in 2011. “Where we live west of the Turnpike there isn’t typically that violence.”

Allowing South Tech, a longtime district-operated technical school that converted into a charter school in 2004, will let the district use the school’s current campus – which it leases from the school board – to expand a school bus compound.

Judge hands PBC school board another defeat in its charter school feud

The Renaissance charter school franchise is fighting to build another campus in Palm Beach County.

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.

>> RELATED: Palm Beach County approves new restrictions on charter schools

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.

Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

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.

>> RELATED: Palm Beach County’s charter school standoff is getting personal

The ruling is the latest in a string of legal defeats for the school board since it embarked 2 1/2 years ago on a self-described “civil disobedience” stand against corporate charter school companies.

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.

Avossa calls for suing the state over charter-friendly law HB 7069

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County’s public school system has “an obligation” to join the growing legal fight against controversial pro-charter school legislation signed into law last month, Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa said today.

In an interview this morning, Avossa called for joining other county school boards in suing the state government over House Bill 7069. School boards in Broward and St. Lucie counties have decided to sue, and Palm Beach County’s school board is expected to discuss potential legal action Wednesday.

HB 7069 is a sweeping education bill that includes provisions that requires school districts to steer more money toward charter schools and makes it easier for new charter schools to open near low-performing traditional schools.

>> Related: Gov. Scott just signed HB 7069. Here’s what it does.

Avossa said a legal challenge is needed given that the new law could have large impacts on the school district’s ability to build and maintain schools. He said he has discussed legal action with more than a dozen school district superintendents in recent weeks.

It would be up to school board members to decide to take legal action, and Avossa said he has been working to “build consensus” for a lawsuit.

“I think it’s very important that the board seriously contemplate joining in on this legal battle,” Avossa said. “I think we have an obligation to our community to look after their assets.”

“This transfer of public funds to private entities is very worrisome,” he added. “I don’t want folks to look back and say ‘Why didn’t they fight tooth and nail?’”

In Palm Beach County, the provision will cost the school district an estimated $10 million next year, or about 2 percent of the district’s roughly $400 million capital budget. That figure is expected to rise as the number of charter schools grows.

Last week, Broward County’s school board voted to spend $25,000 to begin putting together a plan to take legal action against the state, the Sun-Sentinel reported.

Broward officials argue that the law illegally restricts the school district’s sovereignty and improperly gives charters a portion of property tax proceeds They allege the bill also violates a requirement that legislative bills focus on a single subject.

Avossa said that he will make a case for legal action at Wednesday’s board meeting but won’t press for board members to make a decision that evening.

“I’d really just like them to contemplate it and hear from us,” he said. “I think we have a little bit of time and I think we should be methodical about it. These are very complicated constitutional challenges that take time and cost money.”

Ralph Arza, a former state legislator who lobbies for the Florida Charter School Alliance, said he understood Avossa’s desire to protect the school district coffers but he said that students in charter schools deserve a fair share of tax dollars.

Currently, the county’s charter schools don’t get a cut of property tax money raised for school construction and maintenance, meaning they have to finance their own building and maintenance costs through other means.

“Kids should not be penalized because they decide to go to a public charter school,” Arza said. “Charter schools are public schools, and those kids should not be discriminated against.”