Miami-Dade schools

Miami-Dade schools, North Miami at odds over proposed charter school

To North Miami city leaders, the proposed 1,300-seat charter high school on the city’s west side would be a key addition to a community that has long desired greater access and control over public education.

But to get it, they may have to shred a deal with the school district that laid the groundwork for nearly $200 million in construction on public schools and athletic facilities during the last eight years.

Citing a 2006 agreement between the school board and city, the Miami-Dade school district has rejected North Miami’s application for a public safety-themed high school in Claude Pepper Park. According to administrators, the mere suggestion of the school is a blatant violation of a deal that saw the district finance a building boom that includes the new Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High, an elementary school, replacement projects for a middle and high school, and improvements to a stadium and city parks.

The agreement — spurred in 2005 by then-Mayor Kevin Burns’ threats to withhold millions in district fees and instead build charter schools — prohibited the city from seeking or accepting any charter school that would compete with those facilities built and improved by the district.

“The agreement is very clear and the city cannot just disavow it now,” district spokesman John Schuster wrote in a statement.

The city, however, isn’t backing down, setting up the potential for a legal battle between former partners and raising questions about whether school boards can bar cities from accepting charter schools.

“Inexplicably, the city is now appealing the rejection of its application” to the state, school board members were told in a memo last week as the administration sought authorization to sue the city, if need be.

The two issues at the heart of the dispute: whether a Florida school board can bar charter schools from opening in a municipality, and whether North Miami’s school would compete with the facilities built and improved under the 2006 deal.

According to North Miami City Attorney Regine Monestime, neither is true.

Monestime did not return a call to her office. But in the city’s appeal to Florida’s State Board of Education, she argued that state law mandates that school districts consider charter school applications under specific guidelines. A clause in an interlocal agreement isn’t among them, she wrote.

Monestime also argued that even if the agreement was relevant to the application, the school wouldn’t actually “compete” with the district facilities mentioned in the signed document.

“With approximately a goal of 500 students, the North Miami Charter School would be a boutique high school compared to the malls of over 2,000 students in North Miami Senior High School and Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School,” she wrote.

District officials disagree, saying the school would compete with the buildings built and overhauled by the district and would siphon away state funding that helps finance debt incurred in constructing the schools and facilities built under the 2006 deal.

“There are 1,800 high school students currently residing within the city of North Miami,” Schuster wrote. “The city’s application is intended for municipal residents and proposes to enroll up to 1,300 students who live in the city. Clearly, the proposed charter school would compete.”

It’s possible that the city and school district will find a compromise. Administrators pulled the request for legal action before the school board could vote last week. And this month, attorneys for both sides agreed to delay a hearing on the city’s appeal until March so that they can try and mediate the issue.

North Miami Councilwoman Marie Steril, who represents the district where the school is proposed, declined to speak with a reporter Tuesday. But she told school board members during their monthly meeting that she’s hopeful a compromise can be reached.

“I must share with you that at first the conversations were not productive. However, I’m happy to acknowledge that during the past few days the tenor has been changed and we’re now hopeful,” she said to the board. “We’re looking forward to working with you to remove any obstacles.”

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