May 20, 2014

State panel won’t settle debate over proposed North Miami charter school

A state panel won’t weigh in on North Miami’s bid to open a new charter school, leaving the city without a school.

The city of North Miami won’t be able to open its own charter school — for now, at least.

The city had plans for a 1,300-student charter high school in Claude Pepper Park that would focus on careers in public safety. But the Miami-Dade School Board rejected its application in October, citing a 2006 agreement in which North Miami promised not to “seek, approve or accept any charter school” that would compete with the traditional public schools.

City leaders appealed that decision to a state panel. They didn’t get the answer they wanted.

“The rejection of an application for violation of an agreement between the applicant and the district is not an issue reviewable by the Charter School Appeal Commission,” the panel said in a recommendation approved Tuesday by the state Board of Education.

If North Miami wants to continue the battle, it will have to go to court.

City officials did not return calls or emails from the Miami Herald on Tuesday.

The Miami-Dade School Board has contracts, known as interlocal agreements, with numerous municipalities.

In the 2006 deal with North Miami, the school system agreed to build the new Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High; replace North Miami Senior High and North Miami Middle; and build a new elementary school and public park.

In return, the city promised not to open any charter schools that would compete with the new facilities.

Still, North Miami officials submitted an application for a new charter high school in August. The district — the only agency that can approve charter schools in Miami-Dade County — rejected the application without reviewing it.

In its appeal to the state Charter School Appeal Commission, North Miami City Attorney Regine Monestime called the clause in the 2006 contract “illegal, unconscionable [and] unenforceable.”

She added that the Florida Legislature had shown a “clear preference” for encouraging alternative education programs like charter schools.

“The city simply could not have lawfully bargained away certain legal rights, just as a parent could not agree to bargain away a child’s right to a free education,” Monestime said. “Unfortunately for the school board, the state statute trumps the interlocal agreement.”

But Assistant School Board Attorney Mindy McNichols called that argument “audacious,” in part because the district has almost completed its obligations to the city.

The total investment: about $174 million, she said.

“Unfortunately, the School Board has no other option at this point but to defend the appeal and may be required to engage in what will likely be very costly and lengthy litigation against its longtime education partner,” McNichols said.

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