The Miami Herald

Appeals court: Miami-Dade school district right to shut down charter

An appeals court on Thursday struck down a decision by the state Board of Education that had given a troubled Florida City charter school the power to open its doors again after being shut down by the Miami-Dade School District.

In 2010, Miami-Dade school officials closed the Rise Academy after finding a litany of problems at the charter school: unsanitary bathrooms and food storage, a shortage of textbooks, and questionable spending by administrators. The school had no science, social studies, art or writing programs, no student computers, no library — and recess was held on an asphalt parking lot, Miami-Dade officials found.

“The school was a dump,” school district lawyer Mindy McNichols told state officials at a 2010 hearing. “They refused to follow any of the requirements.”

The charter school’s lawyers appealed to the state Board of Education, which reversed the Miami-Dade district’s decision — and a recommendation of the state Charter School Appeals Commission — in a 4-3 vote and restored Rise’s charter. Despite the lifeline, the school never re-opened.

But on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the Third District Court of Appeal reversed the Board of Education’s decision, and found that Miami-Dade school officials had sufficient grounds to close the school “under any standard of review.”

Walter Harvey, the attorney for the Miami-Dade School Board, said the court ruling makes clear that local school districts have the authority to regulate or even close charter schools, and that such decisions cannot be overturned without “substantial competent evidence.”

“It’s an important decision,” Harvey said. “What they affirmed is the authority of the school district to regulate schools within its boundaries.”

Glen Torcivia, an attorney for Rise Academy, said he was disappointed with the appeals court’s ruling. He argued that the school district unfairly shut down the school without giving him an opportunity to challenge the allegations about the school’s finances or the safety of its facilities.

Torcivia said the school district originally criticized Rise on academic grounds, but changed tactics when Rise lifted its statewide grade from an F to A just weeks after the district had closed the school down.

“I felt railroaded,” Torcivia said. “I think the school board lost sight of the fact that they are supposed to be about educating kids.”

But Harvey said Rise’s administrators — including Torcivia’s daughter, Gemma, who served as Rise’s principal — were given extra assistance and repeated warnings of problems before the school district moved to shut the school down in June 2010.

After Rise was shut down, the Legislature approved new procedures requiring an impartial decision-maker to approve a school district’s decision to shut down a charter school on an emergency basis, said Michael Kooi, head of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice with the Florida Department of Education.

Under the new law, the state Board of Education no longer hears appeals of local school district decisions to terminate a charter school; such decisions now are appealed directly to an appeals court.

Torcivia said he still must review the appeals court ruling to determine if he will appeal it to the Florida Supreme Court.

Rise Academy is still pursuing a separate lawsuit against the Miami-Dade School District for breach of contract; the district has sued the school seeking more than $100,000 in school funds.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s over,” Torcivia said.

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