Palmetto Bay council members on Monday unanimously approved plans for a 1,400-student charter school within a residential and commercial complex development at Franjo Road and Southwest 180th Street.
The school will be pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, with 560 children in pre-K through third grade, 440 in fourth through eighth grade, and 400 students in high school.
According to Palmetto Bay Mayor Shelley Stanczyk, the property’s zoning designation and laws governing charter schools all converged in “a perfect storm” to force the council’s hand to approve, with no guarantees that the school would adequately address the traffic and congestion issues sure to arise with an added influx of 1,400 students every work day.
Florida law limits municipal review of charter school applications. And according to the village’s zoning analysis report, because charter schools are defined as “public” in Florida statutes, a facility in compliance with the village’s Comprehensive Plan cannot have its application denied. The municipality may, however, insist on some “reasonable conditions on development” regarding health, safety, the environment and general welfare.
“If you want a place with as little control as possible, put it in an Enterprise Zone. And then if you’ve got a school with legislated protection, so that [municipal] control over approving and not approving is very limited, you’ve got a double whammy of not being able to control any of the effects,” Stanczyk said.
Because the property falls within the South Dade Enterprise Zone, the company doesn’t have to deal with concurrency requirements — which means it doesn’t have to pay to update the transportation infrastructure to meet the demands of whatever traffic is generated by the development.
“One of the biggest problems we see in this community is traffic, and schools bring traffic during critical hours of commuting traffic,” Stanczyk said. “The law has basically taken away my ability to control the impact that an institution like that has on the community.”
The charter-school company did agree, however, to form a committee with council members to explore the possibility of traffic-mitigating initiatives like busing, and to work with the county on traffic lights.
In late 2011, the Village Council denied the school’s application, saying it was incomplete and lacked a charter provided by the Miami-Dade School Board. The property owner sued. The two sides settled the dispute in May 2013.
That settlement stipulated that Shores at Palmetto Bay could resubmit their application for approval without a site-specific charter granted by the school board, as long as the school demonstrated itself to be in compliance with the village’s general land use rules and the school promised to cap enrollment at 1,400. A site-specific charter is a document that provides basic facts about the school such as the curriculum, principal and contact information. According to the settlement, a charter would only have to be provided upon submission of a building permit application.
Gary Pastorella was one of three residents who spoke at Monday night’s meeting to urge against approval on the grounds that it would impact traffic.
“This particular school has combined interestingly both school and retail, and on a two-lane with only one entrance, and given its proximity to South Dixie Highway, where Franjo intersects with U.S. 1, it’s going to be a traffic nightmare. . . . It’s too much for that location,” he told the Miami Herald after the meeting.
But Pastorella also takes issue with charter schools themselves — both how they operate, and what he sees as their lax regulation.
“But we couldn’t do anything about it. We literally couldn’t do anything about it. Charter schools are a giveaway, and that’s a separate issue. And I’m not fond of charter schools, because they take money away from public school when they’re for-profit. So Wayne Rosen [the manager of Shores at Palmetto Bay] really gamed the system,” Pastorella added.
The charter school will be part of the Somerset Academy Inc. franchise managed by Academica, one of the country’s largest and wealthiest charter school management firms, with more than 90 schools in Florida alone.
In 2011, state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, sponsored changes in state law to limit municipal power over charter schools. His sister, Maggie, and brother-in-law, Fernando Zulueta, run Academica. Fresen also has worked as a land-use consultant for Civica, an architectural firm that has designed several Academica schools.
Fresen’s district includes a small part of Palmetto Bay.
The charter school will be housed within a larger mixed-use retail and commercial complex on the Shores at Palmetto Bay property. The proposed site plan includes 80 residential units, 8,697 net square feet of ground floor commercial space, and a 353-space parking garage designated for residential and school use.
The rest of the project is only subject to administrative review for village code compliance, and will not require a public hearing.