Florida school district sees charter schools as ally in managing rapid growth

Suzanne Legg had a problem.

She had co-founded her county’s first charter school. Classes had barely begun, and already student behavior was causing serious issues.

As a first-time charter school leader, Legg was unsure of the best solution. Swallowing her pride and bracing for a dressing down, she called the only place she knew had experts: the Pasco County School District. A staffer soon showed up. His positive attitude surprised her.

“He didn’t talk down to me, even though he could have,” Legg said about that day 23 years ago. “He didn’t tell me everything I was doing wrong, even though he could have. He helped me solve the issue.”

That staff member was Ray Gadd, then assistant superintendent for the school district, which now serves more than 80,000 students just north of Tampa.

Now deputy superintendent, Gadd has been the driving force behind partnerships with three local charters to help the district to absorb rapid growth caused by a housing boom. U.S. Census figures show that Pasco’s population, 464,697 in 2010, grew to 561,891 in 2020. The county administrator compared the growth to the equivalent of “a good-sized city.”

Depending on the project, the deals have included donations of land and impact fees for construction, in addition to the state-required sharing of capital project dollars.

The charter schools, all locally owned and managed, benefit because they are established in the region and eager to expand. The community benefits because the schools offer specialty programs that range from the arts, to specialized programs for students with unique needs, to the advanced high school Cambridge Program. The school district benefits because the state places fewer regulations on charter school buildings, which often lowers construction costs.

“It’s an experiment in innovation.” Gadd said, adding that working with locally run charters allows for “eyeball to eyeball” communication, which still goes a long way in a rapidly growing suburban community that still shows its small-town roots.

“We want to have positive relationships with charters, especially those we know and like,” he said. That includes Dayspring Academy, the same school co-founded by Legg and her husband, former state Sen. John Legg, where Gadd showed up to share his guidance after the first campus opened in 2000.

The district recently gave Dayspring $25 million in impact fees to build a 50,000-square-foot PreK-5 school near the district’s innovation school, which opened this year for students in grades six through 12. School districts charge impact fees to developers to accommodate growth. Dayspring’s new school is set to open next year. The campus will include athletic fields to be shared with the district innovation school. It will be Dayspring’s sixth campus in Pasco County and the first in its center, joining five other campuses on the county’s west side.

Under Pasco’s agreements with charter schools, the charter builds and manages the school, though a “step in” clause allows the district to operate the facility as a public school should the charter school close.

Pasco also has used impact fees to aid Pepin Academies, a school that serves students with unique abilities, to build a $15 million charter school on the campus of Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation high school which opened in 2022 in the county’s also fast-growing east-central region. Pepin, which serves students in kindergarten through 12th grade, already has a campus on the county’s west side and two more in neighboring Hillsborough County. The Pepin campus is set to open in August 2025.

In its latest deal with a charter school, Pasco school board members agreed to sell 20 of its 76 acres to Patel Foundation for Global Understanding for $10 to build a 1,000-student charter high school to open by 2025. The vote wasn’t unanimous, but the majority said the move made good business sense and aligned with its commitment to partner with successful local charters.

Where other districts are battling charters or limiting their growth, Pasco is actively courting them and handing over money from a funding source that state law doesn’t require it to share. Battles over buildings and funding for them can be especially contentious.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is drafting new policies that limit charter schools from co-locating on campuses that serve “vulnerable” students after parents and teachers at district-run schools complained that sharing space with charters resulted in the loss of valuable space for music, food pantries, counseling and therapies. California law requires districts to share space with charter schools but leaves the details to the districts.

In the Hoosier State, Indianapolis Public Schools leaders are asking a court to affirm their claim of exemption from a state law that requires districts to sell or lease underused or closed buildings to charter schools for $1.

And in Florida, Palm Beach County school board members last week approved a $1.1 million settlement that ended a years-long dispute about whether the county’s 49 charter schools should receive more than $40 million collected from a 2018 referendum that voters approved for school safety initiatives and higher teacher salaries. In the settlement, the school board agreed to make two years’ worth of retroactive payments to charter schools.

Contrast these disputes with Pasco, where leaders support school choice and offer a variety of magnet schools in addition to collaborating with local charter schools. The county school board chairwoman, Megan Harding, is a former Dayspring student who returned to teach. School district leaders, including Gadd and Superintendent Browning, have endorsed Legg in his bid to succeed Browning, who plans to retire from his elected post in 2024. (Legg serves on the governance board for Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)

Longtime Pasco politician Mike Fasano, a former state House member and senator who now serves as county tax collector, credits the district’s comfort level with local charters as a part of its political culture, which, despite the county’s rapid development, has remained more like that of a small community. Mom-and-pop charter schools, he said, have local boards as opposed to those with corporate boards that make decisions from afar.

“If you have an issue, you get to deal with people you might know from your church or your local Rotary Club,” he said. “It might even be your neighbor.”

Florida law considers charters part of the state’s program of public education and also uses their counts their performance in districts’ accountability ratings on key metrics such as graduation rates. Under new legislation passed last year, the state is phasing in a new formula that requires charters to receive an equal share of districts’ per pupil property tax funding.

Still, local charter school leaders say that when it comes to translating the principles enshrined in Florida policy into practice, Gadd is ahead of the curve.

“He sees this like, ‘They’re all our kids,’” Suzanne Legg said.

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.