By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
VOLUSIA - Four went up, four voted down. The Volusia County School Board reviewed charter-school applications at its last regular meeting, Sept. 25, and unanimously said, "No." Four times.
"You're hearing, 'Oh, you guys just don't like charter schools,'" board member Stan Schmidt, Port Orange, said in an interview after the meeting. "That's just not true."
Two of the denied applicants said they believe the district isn't biased against charter schools. The others didn't return calls by press time. In interviews after the meeting, the two applicants said it's good that opening charters is a rigorous process. Both also said they'll be back next year with bids to open new charter schools in Volusia County.
Peggy Comardo, principal of Reading Edge Academy, DeBary, said she was disappointed the board turned down her school's bid to add a middle-school campus, but understood why it did.
"They based the decision on the budget they had in hand that was turned in with the application," she said. "Unfortunately we made an error and turned in the wrong budget papers. They had to go with what they had - they made that very clear."
The school - 2975 Enterprise Rd., DeBary - is Volusia's oldest charter school and has 311 students. The school opened in 1998, and it serves kindergarten to fifth grade students. Reading Edge applied to open a middle school at 1911 S. Volusia Ave., Orange City.
At the meeting, board members expressed concerns that by buying the proposed new building, the school would be taking on a larger debt than it could reasonably handle, unless it hit the most optimistic student projections.
"The numbers, in my mind, have to match," Candace Lankford, DeLand, told fellow school board members. "I'm very concerned about this loan and this interest. It's not computing in my mind."
Reading Edge also operates Samsula Academy, 248 N. Samsula Drive, New Smyrna Beach. That school has 210 students. Ms. Comardo said Reading Edge has received As and Bs from the state throughout its history, until recently. The DeBary school received a C the last two school years. Samsula, too, received a C last school year.
Board members said they held Reading Edge in high regard.
"With sadness, I will support a denial of this application," Diane Smith, Deltona, said.
Ms. Comardo said she held herself responsible for application errors that cost the school its expansion for at least a year.
"I disappointed our fifth grade students' parents who were looking forward to sending their kids to our middle school," she said.
Charter schools are a hybrid. They're privately run by for-profit or not-for-profit corporations with public dollars. They must get charters approved by local school boards with requirements set by the state.
"There's a 19-point application," Mr. Schmidt said in the interview after the meeting. "This is set forward by state law, not us."
District staff look at proposed charter schools and grade them on those 19 points as "meets standard," "partially meets standard," or "does not meet standard." Reading Edge's proposed middle school stumbled on four of the 19 points.
District staff also found Odyssey Charter Preparatory Academy's application deficient in four of 19 areas. Brent Christensen, principal of Odyssey Charter School in Palm Bay, said he was disappointed, but understood why the proposed Volusia school was declined.
"The four points - they were valid," he said. "We'll adapt and make it work next time."
Mr. Christensen works for Academica of Central Florida, the education service provider that operates two Palm Bay charter schools.
One may close. Earlier this year, the district did not renew the charter for Boston Avenue Charter School, 340 N. Boston Ave., DeLand. The school remains open as it's legally challenging the school board's decision.
Boston Avenue Charter School, 340 N. Boston Ave., is by state measurements the lowest performing elementary school in the county. The state gave the school a D for the 2010-2011 school year. The previous year, it got an F. It was the first time any Volusia school got an F since the first year the FCAT scoring was introduced, the 1998-1999 school year. It opened for the 2008-2009 school year.
The school board also reviewed applications for the Volusia County Charter High School and Phoenix Academy Charter School.