Another Democratic mayor for charter schools

Some people were a little surprised when Jeri Muoio, mayor of West Palm Beach, Fla., publicly spoke in favor of starting a city-run charter school.

Mayor Jeri Muoio
Mayor Jeri Muoio

After all, Muoio is a fairly liberal Democrat representing a fairly liberal city in a state where the charter school movement is often viewed by the left as a right-wing plot to privatize public schools. She’s also a longtime advocate of public education, having spent some 25 years in traditional public schools.

“So, I’m surprised I’m supporting this,’’ said the New York native, who started out as a schools psychologist and later became an administrator.

But Muoio spent time in the private sector, too, and promoted education reform in urban schools through her work for the Waltham, Mass., nonprofit Education Development Center, a think-tank that addresses urgent needs in education. It’s that diverse background, she said, that helps her get beyond all the political rhetoric when it comes to educating children.

“I believe we just aren’t doing the job we should be doing,’’ Muoio told redefinED recently.

That became clear, she said, when this year’s FCAT scores showed just 54 percent of West Palm Beach’s third-graders read at or above grade level. The results frustrated city commissioners, who rushed to approve a plan – with Muoio’s blessing – to open a K-5 charter school next year.

Some of the concern is economic, the mayor said. It’s hard to attract businesses if schools aren’t academically successful. But mainly, she said, city leaders are worried West Palm Beach isn’t meeting its obligation to children.

“I guess it really comes down to we have kids in our city who are really underserved,’’ she said. “The expectations are low and they shouldn’t be.’’

The city has addressed education deficiencies in the past with special summer camps and after-school programs, Muoio said. She views charter schools as just another option.

They’re still public schools – a plus in her book, Muoio said. But they have autonomy to shape a program that can home in on critical needs, like reading. And that’s what West Palm Beach plans to do.

“We’re looking at longer hours, a longer school year,’’ she said. “We want a focus on literacy and access to good literature.’’

The Palm Beach County School District requires the city to complete its charter application by Aug. 1. West Palm Beach commissioners are working with a consultant to quickly develop a plan for a school to open in the fall of 2014 that will, eventually, accommodate 600 students.

If the district school board approves the application, West Palm Beach’s charter will be the first city-run charter in the county. Florida has 14 such schools. As the Sun Sentinel reported recently, city-run charters – like district schools – have their share of ups and downs.

One example is Pembroke Pines in neighboring Broward County, where the city runs an A-rated charter system. Despite its success, the system is grappling with a $2.4 million budget shortfall. The city recently cut teacher salaries and asked parents to donate $1,000.

Muoio said her biggest concern is getting the right people to run the schools. West Palm Beach will look for a management company instead of overseeing the school’s day-to-day operations itself, she said. If all goes well, she added, “we might do another one down the road.’’

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BY Sherri Ackerman

Sherri Ackerman is the former associate editor of redefinED. She is a former correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times and reporter for The Tampa Tribune, writing about everything from cops and courts to social services and education. She grew up in Indiana and moved to Tampa as a teenager, graduating from Brandon High School and, later, from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing. Sherri passed away in March 2016.