For the second year in a row, Florida parents are preparing to battle in Tallahassee against the powerful school-choice lobby over the so-called parent trigger bill.
And the issue — enabling parents to convert traditional public schools into charter shools — is simmering in Miami-Dade.
Two attempts — one failed and one just starting — have tried to use a process already on the state books: Parents and teachers can hold a vote to convert a school; if half of them approve, an application can go to the school board.
In Key Biscayne, Manuel Cambó and Hector Ceballos want to hold a vote to convert their children’s school, the Key Biscayne K-8 Center, into a charter. The school has an A-grade from the state, but is overcrowded and has aging buildings. While Cambó’s brother, Robert Cambó, has developed charters and leases to charters in South Florida, Cambó says his family isn’t seeking to profit. Their vision is to turn the school into a nonprofit charter, run by parents and professional advisors, with new buildings and the same staff.
The two dads are proceeding slowly with the help of attorney Jorge Cruz Bustillo, who was appointed to the Florida Elections Commission by former Gov. Jeb Bush. They fear fallout for the school’s administrators, after what happened at another school.
At Neva King Cooper Educational Center in Homestead, the principal and assistant principal recommended a charter conversion in February. The school’s advisory board first endorsed the idea, then took it back. Complaints that the school administrators intimidated potential voters prompted an internal probe. Principal Alberto Fernandez and Assistant Principal Henny Cristobal were demoted to jobs at the school district’s mail room and motor fleet.
They are contesting their demotions with the state Department of Education, with the aid of a Lake Wales attorney with ties to charter schools. The district’s assistant chief auditor, Julio Miranda, told the state he “guarantees there is no retaliation.” The state has reviewed the case but not yet ruled.
“These demotions have sent out a chill across the whole district that no employee better send in a letter asking for this vote,” Bustillo said. In an email, the Miami-Dade School Board’s attorney, Walter Harvey, denied his request to negotiate a balloting process, calling it “premature, unauthorized, and contrary to state law.”
Charter schools receive tax dollars but are run by management companies instead of the locally elected school board. If a public school becomes a charter, the district loses state funding for those students — about $6,120 in 2011-12 in Miami-Dade.
The state Board of Education wants to increase the number of charters in Florida by 60 percent over the next six years. Currently, Florida has more than 500 charters, with just over one in five of those in Miami-Dade County.
Only 20 current charters in Florida — none of them in Miami-Dade or Broward — were converted from traditional public schools.
The parent trigger law, which failed in the last legislative session, would have enabled parents at underperforming schools to create a turnaround plan, with charter conversion as an option. State Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, filed the bill, called Parent Empowerment in Education. Another bill is expected next session, according to Florida PTA, which opposed it.
More than 20 states have considered such laws. The issue got national attention after California passed a version in 2010 and was featured this year in the movie Won’t Back Down — which also drew protests from parent activists who saw it as propaganda in the education reform debate.Mindy Gould, legislative chairwoman for the Florida PTA, said parents found the so-called “parent trigger” law misleading because the local school board would review parents’ plan and state education administrators would have the final say. Gould said parents were concerned about taking away local control.
“With the push for charters, are they ultimately looking to turn the school over to a private management company?” Gould asked. She said parent education is essential. “You’ve got to make sure that the parents that are currently at the school or incoming to the school know what’s going on. It can’t be two parents, it can’t be a handful.”
Academics are not the issue for parents seeking to convert the Key Biscayne K-8 Center; it’s the facilities.
The school has a section dating to the 1950s and enrolls about 1,300 students, more than its 1,000 capacity.
A 2008 report recommended razing the 1950s buildings and some renovations have been completed. More are expected: $2 million worth paid for by the village and the $1.2 billion bond referendum recently approved to fix schools countywide.
But Cambó and Ceballos say the fixes won’t come fast enough or solve the problem.
“This school must come down,” Cambó said.
Cambó and Ceballos are officers of the PTA, but are acting on their own, even if their own children wouldn’t immediately benefit. “My heart is in the right place,” Cambó said.
They believe a new campus can get built with renovation money from the village and private fundraising if necessary.
It’s not clear how much support they have on the tight-knit, affluent island. Local politicians, the principal and the PTA have not taken up the issue. A previous attempt to pursue a municipal charter high school failed in 2008.
Key Biscayne Vice Mayor Michael Kelly said the school is struggling with capacity as more families move to the island, but a charter conversion is not a viable solution.
“I don’t think the community as a whole would support a charter, especially if it means losing the great academic experience we already have,” he said.
Jackie Kellogg, a Key Biscayne parent who volunteers at the school and whose daughter previously attended a charter, praised the staff and principal: “I feel we have a really great school, and we attract some of the best teachers, so why would you want to change that?”
Said School Board member Raquel Regalado, who represents Key Biscayne: “I think our district has engaged and involved parents that have been complaining about the facilities. It’s not like parents are complaining about curriculum.”
Cambó said they do not want to have an outside management company involved
His brother has experience with charters. Robert Cambó’s company, Alliance X, is the landlord for the Excelsior Language Academy and Excelsior Charter High, two charters in Hialeah. The schools paid $938,000 in lease expenses to Cambó’s company in 2010-11, records show.
Cambó said they are looking to the example of Harold Maready, who opened one of the first converted charters in Florida in 1998. Now the superintendent over three charters, Maready said they run the schools so efficiently, they can reinvest $200,000 to $500,000 in total a year. “I see conversion charter schools as another way to manage public schools. You have academic accountability, you have financial accountability,” Maready said. He said the process for charter conversions has gotten bogged down in legal issues.
“Superintendents across the state are against conversion charter schools. They have set up road blocks to prevent them,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Scott Hiaasen contributed to this report.