Fla. Supreme Court decision could end PBC school board’s fight to block a charter school

Renaissance Charter in Royal Palm Beach is one of six Charter Schools USA schools in Palm Beach County. (File photo)

The Florida Supreme Court handed a legal victory Tuesday to a charter school company battling the Palm Beach County School Board for the right to open a school west of Delray Beach.

In a decision announced today, justices refused to hear the school board’s appeal of the case, letting stand a lower court decision that affirmed the state government’s power to overrule school boards regarding whether charter schools can open.

The decision could force the school board to allow the company, Charter Schools USA, and an affiliated non-profit to open the school after nearly three years of legal battles. The company operates six other schools in Palm Beach County under the Renaissance name.

The legal tangle started in December 2014, when the school board unexpectedly overruled school district officials and voted to reject the company’s application to open a new school west of Delray Beach.

School district officials said the school met all of their criteria, but board members declared that the school should not be allowed to open because it was not “innovative.”

The non-profit that applied to open the school, Florida Charter Education Foundation, appealed to the state Board of Education, which overruled the county school board.

The school board sued, arguing that under Florida’s constitution only school boards can decide which charter schools open in their jurisdiction.

In January, the appeals court called that argument “meritless.”

The school board appealed once again, this time to the state Supreme Court. On Tuesday, the court denied the request for an appeal.

Florida Charter Education Foundation, which applied to open the school on Charter Schools USA’s behalf. said that it was “obviously pleased” by the Supreme Court’s decision, calling the school board’s appeals an attempt to “limit parental choice in education.”

“Finally Palm Beach County taxpayer dollars can go toward educating students instead of financing frivolous lawsuits,” said Rod Jurado, the non-profit’s chairman. “We look forward to putting this behind us so that we can work positively with the school board toward doing what is best for students.”

Before the school can open, the non-profit will have to resubmit its appeal to the state.

In January, the appeals court court ordered that a state charter school appeal commission review the case again and send the state Board of Education a “fact-based justification” to consider.

The state board is not required to follow the appeal commission recommendation.

In a statement, the school district conceded that the charter school company could now move forward with a new request for the state Board of Education to overturn the school board’s decision.

“The Florida Supreme Court had the discretion either to take the case or not,” the district said. “The court did not explain its reasoning for declining to take the case.”


Bak Middle School cancels classes after power outage

Bak Middle School of the Arts in West Palm Beach (File photo).

Bak Middle School of the Arts canceled classes and sent students home this morning after power went out at the West Palm Beach school.

A school district spokeswoman confirmed that a power outage was reported at the school around 7:15 a.m. The school has a backup generator but it does not operate the air-conditioner.

The school canceled classes around 11:30 a.m., officials said.

A teacher at the school told The Palm Beach Post that the school operated all morning on the backup generator, which powered lights throughout the building.

“It really wasn’t a big deal until it started getting hot in the classrooms,” the teacher said.

The shortened day comes as classes resumed this week in the county’s public schools after a 7-day layoff due to Hurricane Irma.

Check back for updates to this developing story.

PBC clears path to free school meals through Oct. 20 in Irma’s wake

File photo behind the scenes at a Palm Beach County school cafeteria. (Bruce R. Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, the school district has the go ahead to offer free meals to all students from today through Friday, Oct. 20, Palm Beach County school officials announced Monday.

“Breakfast is always free in Palm Beach County, and for the next month, the District is pleased to be able to provide lunch meals at no cost as well,” according to the notice posted on the district’s website.

The permission comes in the form of a waiver granted because of the storm’s impact across the state. The meals still come under the National School Lunch Program, which means students have to select a complete meal – not pick from an a la carte menu – in order to qualify. Snack items are still available at regular prices.

Palm Beach County school bus driver fired after 5 crashes in 1 year

File photo (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

A Palm Beach County school bus driver has been fired after officials said he was involved in five bus crashes in less than a year.

The county school board voted today to fire driver Craig Freeman, 59. He will have an opportunity to appeal the termination.

In a termination letter, school district officials say that Freeman was involved in five bus crashes, the most recent one on June 1.

The letter does not give details about the crashes or whether anyone was injured. A school district spokeswoman said she did not have further information about the incidents.

After the various crashes, Freeman’s total “driver safety points” exceeded the maximum permitted within a 3-year period under school district rules, prompting his termination. Records show he was hired by the school district in September 2015.

In an interview, Freeman characterized the spate of crashes as an unlucky run. He said only one of the accidents was his fault, and that some were “minor stuff” in which his bus’s side-view mirror was struck during turns.

“I’ve been driving buses since the ’70s,” he said, “and basically I just had some bad luck and that’s what it boiled down to.”

Avossa blasts Trump’s immigration move as contrary to American Dream

Robert Avossa, Superintendent of the School District of Palm Beach County, speaks to members of the media about the bus situation in a press conference Wednesday, August 19, 2015. (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa blasted President Trump’s decision today to end protections for younger immigrants residing illegally in the U.S. as “contrary to what many refer to as the American Dream.”

In a statement this afternoon, Avossa promised that the county’s public schools would continue to educate all students regardless of their immigration status as required by state and federal law.

The county’s schools, he said, will continue to be “a safe place for all children.”

“I don’t want our immigrant students in Palm Beach County to be deterred by today’s announcement,” Avossa wrote. “My message to you is this – your hard work and determination are important now more than ever. Your future is bright.”

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions today announced that the Trump administration would begin rolling back a federal program created by former President Obama that allowed young, longtime immigrants living in the country illegally to work and reside without fear of deportation.

Here is Avossa’s entire statement:

The Administration’s decision today is contrary to what many refer to as the American Dream. We will continue to advocate for the children whose voices will be silenced by this decision.

Many of the impacted children from today’s announcement have known no other home but these United States. They are children who, just five years ago, were provided assurances from this great Nation that they were free and safe to live and dream alongside their peers. They are children who were told and believed that they could be anything they wanted to be, if they just worked and studied hard. They are children who are caught in the crosshairs of contentious politics, who may wake up afraid tomorrow in a home where they once felt safe.

We must all call on lawmakers to set aside their differences and keep the dreams alive for our children.

I don’t want our immigrant students in Palm Beach County to be deterred by today’s announcement. My message to you is this – your hard work and determination are important now more than ever. Your future is bright.

Our Constitution guarantees all children, regardless of immigration status, equal access to public education. Despite today’s announcement, students who were not born in the United States are entitled to attend public school.

The Palm Beach County School District is committed to ensuring all of our students are valued and supported regardless of their immigration status or national origin. We value and celebrate the incredibly diverse, multicultural character of our student body, and I believe we are stronger for it.

Schools in Palm Beach County do not, cannot, and will not ask students or their parents for information about their immigration status.  The Florida Department of Education prohibits Florida’s public schools from inquiring about student and family immigration status or requiring students to obtain a Federal Social Security number.

Our schools are a safe place for all children to learn and grow and I expect all of our students to come to school, all day, every day.

Our doors are open to every child, not only because it is right, but because it is the law.

Hurricane Irma: PBC public schools will close Thursday and Friday

UPDATE: Palm Beach County’s public schools will close Thursday and Friday as the region braces for Hurricane Irma.

The county school district announced the closures this afternoon, shortly the public school districts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties made similar announcements.

The closures affect the county school district’s more than 180 school campuses from Jupiter to Boca Raton.

In a message on Twitter, the school district said that the closures were done “to allow PBC families to prepare” for the approaching Category 5 storm.

“While landfall is not expected until Sunday, we have a responsibility to ensure our personnel have ample time to prepare before tropical force winds arrive in the area,” Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa said in a statement.

All of the district schools’ aftercare programs will be in operation until 6 p.m. Wednesday, but sports events and school meetings scheduled for Wednesday afternoon will be cancelled.

In a news conference this afternoon, Avossa said that the school district is readying 15 school campuses for use as hurricane shelters, which together can house up to 50,000 people. County emergency managers decide when to open shelters, but Avossa said they should be ready to house people as early as Wednesday evening.

A fleet of school buses will also be at the ready for evacuations in the Glades region if water levels in Lake Okeechobee threaten the integrity of the dike.

While the county is not expected to feel any effects from Irma before Friday, Avossa said that it was critical to give families and the school district’s more than 22,000 employees time to prepare.

“I have an obligation to make sure those teacher sand staff have time to prepare their families,” he said.

Avossa said he believed the recent devastation in Houston from Hurricane Harvey helped to raise awareness of a hurricane’s risks.

“People are paying a lot more attention than we have in the past,” he said. “Harvey, I think, helped people pay attention earlier instead of later.”

Check back for details to this breaking story.

ORIGINAL STORY: Palm Beach County School District Officials are watching the hurricane forecast closely but have not yet made the call regarding if and when schools would close. An announcement regarding closures is expected at 4 p.m. today.

Shortly after 3 p.m., Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho announced that school district is closing schools Thursday ahead of  Hurricane Irma in an abundance of caution.

The Palm Beach County  district works closely with the county’s emergency managers in making that call, spokeswoman Kathy Burstein said. Those emergency managers, including representatives from various emergency services, are due to talk to state officials in a conference call at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday.

“As Hurricane Irma moves through the Atlantic Ocean, School District of Palm Beach County leaders are closely monitoring the storm and its track.

“Any time severe weather affects Palm Beach County, the District works with emergency management officials, including the National Weather Service, to determine how school operations will be affected. Our top priority is to ensure the safety of our students, employees, volunteers and visitors.” – PBCSD statement regarding Hurricane Irma

Read full statement here. 

When that call is made the information will be posted on the district’s website and phone calls home to parents. The message will also go out on social media. Follow the district on Twitter at @pbcsd and find it on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pbcsd.

Check back with ExtraCredit for more details as they become available.

Follow Kimberly Miller on Twitter for the forecast at @KMillerWeather.

Get the latest forecast details on Hurricane Irma here. 


Don’t spend that $10 million just yet, PBC schools warn charter schools

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A new law requires Palm Beach County’s public school system to share an extra $10 million with charter schools this year, but school district leaders are telling those schools not to make any spending plans just yet.

In a letter dated Aug. 25, the school district warns the county’s 48 charter schools to “refrain from pledging any and all future revenues” from the new spigot of cash that state lawmakers opened this spring.

The reason: The county’s school board and 10 others plan to sue to overturn the new state law, which for the first time requires school districts to give charters a share of the money they raise from property taxes for construction and maintenance.

The school district’s letter says that the requirement to share the money was part of House Bill 7069, a sweeping education bill passed earlier this year, and that the school board is challenging the law on constitutional grounds.

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

“If the school board’s challenge is successful, these provisions will be struck down,” Mike Burke, the school district’s chief financial officer, wrote. “Therefore the purpose of this notice is to advise you and all relevant parties to refrain from pledging any and all future revenue(s) derived from (the property tax dollars).”

Palm Beach County School District Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke. (Palm Beach Post file photo.)

Burke asked charter school leaders to sign a form acknowledging the warning and promising to alert the school district if they do intend to make plans to spend the new money.

“I agree to notify the School Board of Palm Beach County of any intent to pledge future revenue(s) derived from the discretionary capital outlay millage funds referenced under HB 7069,” the form states.

In an interview, Burke said that school district leaders “felt like we needed to put the charter schools on notice.”

“This law was just put into in place, and it is going to be challenged,” he said.

Burke said the letter was simply an effort to warn charter schools that the money they’re expecting to receive this year could be in legal jeopardy. State law requires the school district to send the money to the charters in February.

Burke said the district intends to comply with the requirement to pay out the $10 million unless a court orders it not to.

He said he was unsure whether the charters could face any repercussions from the school district for making plans to use the prospective cash to, for instance, take out loans or sign building leases.

RELATED: PBC school board joins suit over charter-friendly education law

Charters are privately operated, but school districts distribute their state money, monitor their performance and have authority to close them if they violate rules or perform poorly.

The notice has raised the ire of some charter school leaders, who say the district is trying to pressure the independently run schools to disavow any plans for spending their own money.

“It’s a little bit of bullying by the Palm Beach County School District,” said Ralph Arza, a lobbyist for the Florida Charter School Alliance. “You’re essentially saying: That money that is coming to you – we want you to commit to not using it.”

Last month the county school board voted to join several other Florida school boards in a lawsuit about 7069.

School district leaders argue that HB 7069 illegally restricts school boards’ sovereignty and improperly gives charters a portion of property tax proceeds. They allege the measure also violates a requirement that legislative bills focus on a single subject.

Charter school advocates have condemned the plans for legal action, saying that charters are entitled to a portion of the school board’s construction money since they educate public school students as well.

Arza said that the school district’s request that charter schools sign the form “puts principals in a tough spot.”

“The district is the charter authorizer,” Arza said. “They have some level of authority over you, and they’re the ones calling around saying ‘Why haven’t you returned this?’”

PBC charter schools lose students for first time more than a decade

Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa greets students at Washington Elementary School (Photo courtesy of Palm Beach County School District)

Palm Beach County school enrollment has hit a record 193,973, according to the year’s first head count. But for the first time in at least a decade, none of that growth happened in charter schools, where instead enrollment fell by 939 students.

Even so, with an overall enrollment of 19,803, charter schools can still claim as they first did three years ago that one in 10 of the county’s students is on their rolls.

Taken on Monday, Aug. 28, the eleventh day count is an in-house enrollment check used to fine tune teacher staffing. An official count for budget purposes is taken statewide in October.

Schools in direct competition with neighboring charters have worked to make themselves more attractive to families in recent years. Some have added programs in robotics, medicine, and the environment.

This year, one elementary has begun to stretch into the middle grades to reclaim lost enrollment.

But more than half of that drop in charter enrollment, 497 students, can be attributed to four closings:  Belle Glade Excel, Boca Raton Charter, Learning Path Academy and Riviera Beach Maritime Academy.

Belle Glade Excel and Learning Path Academy tanked after repeated failed grades from the state. Riviera Beach Maritime was pushed into limbo when the landlord, the city of Riviera Beach, ended the school’s lease.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered Eagle Arts Academy of Wellington saw its rolls drop by 346 students, leaving its total enrollment at 431.

Jim Pegg, director of the school district’s charter school office, said that charter school growth has been “relatively flat for a few years” but that the drop was nonetheless noteworthy.

“These are always parental decisions,” he said. “The parents are making decisions to remain within the district schools.”

Enrollment also fell at the district’s virtual schools, alternative schools and in pre-kindergarten programs.

This year’s overall growth at the district’s 165 elementary, middle and high schools as well as its alternative and charter schools is less than half what it was last year, when nearly 2,900 more students poured in through the classroom doors.

Still, it’s enough to fill 32 of those schools to capacity or beyond, including 10 of 23 high schools.

What schools are most crowded? Have the most students?

Forest Hill High School remains the most crowded school in the district with 2,463 students on a campus built for 1,837.  Thanks to a boundary change that siphoned dozens of students out of the school, its rolls grew by only a dozen in August.

Even though John I. Leonard High welcomed 16 fewer students this fall, it is still home to the most students, with an enrollment of 3,591.

Among high schools, Palm Beach Lakes saw the biggest jump in enrollment with 268 additional students – some of those coming from boundary changes at Forest Hill High.

Relief for crowded high schools is, for now, years down the road. The district has two high schools planned in the next 10 years, one off Lyons Road near Lake Worth Road and another west of Royal Palm Beach. A third high school, a West Boynton Beach High, could be in the mix if developer GL Homes gets its wish to build homes in that region of the county.

The district’s largest middle school, Palm Springs Middle, grew by 115 students to an enrollment of 1,636.  Wellington Landings Middle saw the most growth among middle schools with 139 additional students.

At elementary school level, Timber Trace in Palm Beach Gardens and Citrus Cove in Boynton Beach gained the most students, with 123 and 111 additions respectively.

After years of crowding, Calusa Elementary in Boca Raton, saw relief courtesy of a cascade of boundary changes in the region that dropped enrollment by 117 students.

Freedom Shores Elementary in Boynton Beach saw an enrollment drop of 109 students.

As for charter schools, after several years of sharp growth, Pegg said a slowdown was inevitable. There’s a natural limit, he said, to the number of parents interested in enrolling children in charters, and this year’s decrease is an indication that the county has reached it.

“There is, for lack of a better term, a cap,” he said. “If you look over the last three years it’s been relatively flat. This year we’re looking at a drop”

Still, he said the overall quality of the county’s charter schools is rising as more low-performing charter schools are forced to close. This summer, two small F-rated charters shut their doors.

The overall quality of the charters will increase, he said, “the more we close the lower functioning charter schools.”



















This Palm Beach Gardens school used ‘Toys for Tots’ gifts as test prizes 

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Grove Park Elementary spent $14,000 on a 3-hour field trip to a Miami zoo, used school funds to buy Saks Fifth Avenue sandals for an assistant principal, and held donated Christmas toys for use as rewards for students with high test scores, a school board investigation found.

Principal JoAnne Rogers did not violate any policies last year when her Palm Beach Gardens school failed to distribute toys from the Toys for Tots charity the week before Christmas, deciding to instead hand them out later in the year to students who made “academic gains during testing” or other achievements, investigators concluded.

But the move violated the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation’s wish that they be given to needy children as Christmas gifts, the school board’s inspector general concluded.

Principal JoAnne Rogers

“Clearly the program desires for children to receive toys during the Christmas season and unrelated to the child’s ‘academic gains during testing’ or the child’s ‘academic performance achievements,’” Inspector General Lung Chiu wrote.

Rogers told investigators that she was out of town when the toys were delivered to the school and that her assistant principal did not have time to distribute them to the most needy children on campus on the last day of classes before Christmas. She added that the charity did not deliver enough toys for every child at the school.

Instead, Rogers wrote to investigators, the toys were held and “distributed at times during the year for academic recognition.”

She did not tell investigators how many children received toys or how the recipients were selected. She did not respond to a request for comment from The Palm Beach Post.

In an interview Tuesday, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa defended the school’s decision, saying that Toys for Tots dropped off the toys unannounced on Dec. 22, the last school day before Christmas.

“They didn’t know that on the last day before children left they were going to show up with a truck full of toys,” Avossa said. “You can’t stop everything and sort out toys.”

He said that Rogers and her staff “made the right decision and should not have distributed those toys.”

Efforts to reach a local representative for the Toys for Tots program were unsuccessful. On its website, the Toys for Tots’ Palm Beach County campaign said that it delivered toys directly to schools last year in an effort to reach more needy children.

“We will be conducting our campaign the same way for 2017 as we were able to directly impact far more children than we ever could have imagined,” the organization wrote.

Grove Park Elementary, located on Military Trail south of Northlake Boulevard, was an F school when Rogers was assigned to take it over last year. Under Rogers, its grade rose this year to a C. About 90 percent of its 530 students last year qualified for federal lunch subsidies.

Investigators said that Rogers violated school district policies by buying a $185 pair of sandals for Assistant Principal Marzella Mitchell in September, then using $100 in school funds to compensate herself for the purchase.

When questioned by investigators, Rogers initially denied that she had purchased shoes for Mitchell, records show. But investigators discovered a form Rogers had filled out to compensate herself after purchasing the sandals at Saks Fifth Avenue in Palm Beach Gardens.

Rogers later admitted to the purchase, arguing that the gift was an “academic recognition in nature” for Mitchell’s hard work at the school.

The purchase failed to meet school district standards for documenting school expenditures and violated a district rule against purchasing gifts for adults worth more than $100, the investigation concluded.

School district spokeswoman Kathy Burstein defended the purchase in an email Tuesday as permissible under school district rules.

“She bought the shoes with her own money and sought partial reimbursement, as allowed by policy,” Burstein wrote.

Toward the end of the school year, Rogers arranged for the school to spend $14,400 for a school-wide field trip to Zoo Miami, an excursion planned for 536 students and 79 chaperones.

Records show that Rogers spent $9,600 to hire 12 charter buses and an additional $4,837 on admission costs for the May 15 trip.

Students were scheduled to spend 3 hours and 15 minutes at the zoo, including a 30-minute lunch break. An additional three hours were scheduled to be spent in transit.

The zoo, located southwest of Miami, is 99 miles from Grove Park’s campus. The Palm Beach Zoo, by comparison, is 11 miles from the campus.

Burstein said that field trips to the Miami destination are common in public schools throughout the county and that the Miami zoo has attractions that can’t be found in the smaller Palm Beach Zoo.

“The two zoos provide entirely different experiences and have different animals — elephants, lions, giraffes, etc., that you can’t see at the Palm Beach Zoo,” Burstein wrote. “Why should students at a (low-income) school be denied this opportunity?”

Chiu concluded that the trip “was appropriately documented and approved by required district officials.”

As a result of his findings, Chiu recommended that Rogers receive online training regarding the proper use of school funds.


Palm Beach County’s highest-rated public schools, ranked

Suncoast Community High School is one of Palm Beach County’s top-rated public schools (File photo)

More than 70 of Palm Beach County’s public schools earned A grades from the state this year. But sharing the same letter grade doesn’t mean those schools performed equally well under Florida’s school-grading formula.

The state’s A-rating is a pretty broad category. So broad, in fact, that nearly 30 percent of Florida public schools earned A grades this year.

So we’ve assembled a ranking of Palm Beach County’s 20 top-performing schools under the state’s grading formula. These schools comprise roughly the top 10 percent of the 207 county public schools that received school grades this year.

Of the top 20 schools, two are charter schools: Western Academy and Somerset Academy Boca Middle School. The other 18 are schools operated by the Palm Beach County School District.

Morikami Park Elementary School

Not surprisingly, the five top-ranked schools are application-only campuses, meaning every student has to apply to attend and is selected if they meet certain criteria.

Also not surprising: The 20 highest-rated schools tended to be schools with relatively few poor and minority students. The inherent advantages of having student bodies that are predominantly middle or upper class are well-established, since those students tend on average to face fewer systemic barriers to learning.

The state’s much-criticized grading formula tries to offset these advantages somewhat by giving schools credit not just for how many students pass state exams but also how many made substantial improvements from one year to another.

Even so, schools still are mostly judged by how many students pass the exams. That gives a major edge to schools with fewer disadvantaged children. (Read the state’s detailed explanation of its school-grading formula.)

One caveat: On this list we’ve included elementary, middle and high schools along with K-8 schools, even though different schools are graded on slightly different criteria. (You can see the grade of every Florida public school here.)

We’ve ranked the schools by the percentage of total possible points that each school earned under the state’s grading system, which controls for the fact that some schools can earn more points than others. So here it is:

Palm Beach County’s highest-rated public schools


And here is a static image of the list…