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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Island Middle School charter renewal denied

A unanimous vote by the Manatee County School Board sealed the fate of Island Middle School Monday.

School board members upheld district Superintendent Roger Dearing's recommendation not to renew the Island school's charter despite pledges from former IMS Executive Director Jeanne Shell and newly elected IMS board members to turn the school around.

The school board's decision means IMS students will be placed into neighborhood schools or may apply to other charter schools for the next school year. They will finish the current school year at IMS.

"I'm sure you're just as surprised to see me here as I am to be here," Shell told the school board March 15. "Three years ago I thought we'd be here all aglow, but little did I realize the board of directors would make a wrong turn in the road to renewal and we'd be here fighting to survive."

Shell told the board that a "well-thought-out strategy" got her ousted from her position at the end of the previous school year and the board chose to put in place people to run the school as the charter application dictates.

"The charter application is not an educational document and lacks the foundation needed," Shell explained. "It was a vision they wanted to make happen."

Shell told the board she was willing to return to IMS and bring the school back into compliance, as it was when she left it, if the board was willing to grant the school a one-year charter renewal.

Newly elected to the IMS board, Ed Upshaw was willing to step up to the podium and take responsibility for the adversity faced during the past school year.

"One thing went wrong with the school," Upshaw said. "Last year we made the mistake of letting go of a qualified, experienced and competent director and hiring inexperienced, unqualified people. We have learned from that mistake."

Dearing cited more than one problem with IMS, many of which he told the board violate state statutes and the school's charter contract with the county.

He said the school exposed the school board to liability by allowing students to be transported on field trips by parents because the school neglected to document eligibility of parents and vehicles used to transport students.

Dearing said the school also lacked evidence of a scientifically based reading program, did not maintain lesson plans adhering to the Sunshine State Standards, failed to employ certified teachers, didn't record its financial statements in alignment with the school district, and violated its charter agreement by not providing free and reduced-cost lunches.

As the charter sponsor, the Manatee County School Board is responsible for ensuring that the charter applicant is fiscally sound.

He noted that IMS has not submitted financial reports in a timely manner, which is a violation of its charter contract, and that the charter review panel found inconsistencies in the financial reports submitted to the county and those on file at the school. The school's lack of organized and accurate record keeping of grant funds violates federal law, Dearing said.

The lack of certified teachers, with the exception of science teacher Sandy Brousseau, proved to be a large hurdle for IMS. None of the teachers teaching out-of-field or professionals hired as experts-in-field teachers were officially approved by the charter board. According to the district's charter review committee, if audited, funding for all but one teacher would likely be denied.

Dearing went further by detailing violations within the school's contract with the county, citing issues in nearly every section from record keeping, human resources, discipline, safety and welfare and academic accountability.

Manatee County School Board member Frank Brunner voted in favor of granting the IMS charter three years ago, but expressed concerns at Monday.

"In my personal opinion, the team of experts do an outstanding job of reviewing applications and bend over backwards to give advice and work with charter schools," he said.

Brunner said he believed IMS put the school board at risk due to its poor governance. He said he spoke to several parents, and although he heard good reports on students, the recommendation by Dearing and the review committee bear a lot of weight.

School board member Barbara Harvey said she was concerned that students at IMS were not receiving the best quality of education that the county can provide.

All property purchased by IMS with public funds will revert to the school board and the IMS board will be accountable for all debts.

It's unclear which IMS board members will be liable for any remaining debts. Harvey and Brunner questioned whether it falls on the shoulders of the board members in place when the debt was incurred or all boards divided.

School board attorney Mark Barnebey suggested IMS consult its corporate attorney, but the IMS board does not currently have an attorney.

Shell said many of the documents the school failed to produce for the charter review team were in place when she left at the close of the last school year.

IMS board member Jim Ferguson said he was willing to appeal the decision at the state level. He said the board's treatment of the IMS renewal application was unusual in that representatives from the school were not questioned by the board and were only permitted to speak for three minutes during public comment.

"It felt more like a public hanging," said Ferguson.

IMS board member and acting executive director Kimberly Holmstrom said, "What upsets me is, if we've been having these problems for three years, why didn't we hear from [the school board] prior to our renewal so we could fix it right away?"

Holmstrom also pointed out many of the issues brought up were the responsibility of the director and when board members attempted to step in they were accused of micromanaging the school.

Although the charter statute requires certification for teachers, it does not pose specific requirements for governing boards or directors of charter schools. Despite the failure of IMS to meet the requirements of the statute, Dearing said many charter schools are successful and run with the help of the school board.

Based on the small percentage that fail, Dearing does not believe it's necessary for the statute to impose stricter qualifications for people who want to open and run a charter school.

"When you have rapid turnover and an evident lack of certified people you have an atmosphere for problems," Dearing said.