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Florida To Ask Districts To Consider Private Management

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By Lonnie Harp

After signing a novel partnership agreement with a for-profit school-management firm, Florida officials are hoping to persuade up to three school districts in the state to surrender some or all of their schools to private administration.

The agreement between the state of Florida and Education Alternatives Inc., a Minneapolis-based management and consulting firm, is seen in part as laying the groundwork for a bid for funding from the New American Schools Development Corporation, a privately funded research-and-development effort, set up at President Bush's request, that plans to distribute up to $200 million in grants for innovative school designs.

But state officials also emphasize that they will solicit schools for private management regardless of the fate of their grant request.

Sponsors of the agreement say they have been encouraged by the results of a similar management deal at a south Florida elementary school run by Education Alternatives. (See Education Week, June 6, 1990.)

"What interests all of as is we see the public-private partnership as an opportunity to bring together the best of both worlds," said Walter J. McCarroll, the deputy state commissioner for education programs. "We maintain lay oversight while introducing all the other aspects of competition, efficiency, and entrepreneurship."

Becoming 'A Key Player'

State officials have been meeting with education associations to explain the plan and will begin approaching districts in January. Mr. McCarroll said officials envision two or three contracts between the private firm and school boards allowing for control of medium-sized districts or part of larger districts.

"initially, we need to get some answers on this," Mr. McCarroll said. 'We are looking for a legitimate cross- section of kids and ultimately to try this in a way that gives us a fair trial ."

While state officials are interested in the results of a large private management experiment, the plan's architects said it may take the lure of a new funding source to bring districts to the table. In a press conference announcing the agreement last month, Commissioner of Education Betty Castor made recognition by the New American Schools group a central theme of her proposal.

"They're looking for bold, dramatic innovation and are willing to back that up with dollars--about $20 million per project over five years," she said. 'We think Florida should get some of those funds, but more importantly, we believe that Florida can be a key player in developing new ways to run schools and dramatically improve education."

Not 'In Competition'

Under Florida's plan, Education Alternatives would take over the day-to-day administration of schools.

David Bennett, the firm's president and a former superintendent of the St. Paul schools, said that if a school beard signed a management contract for an entire district, the firm would essentially assume the responsibilities of its superintendent. In an agreement covering a portion of a district, the firm would establish a parallel administrative organization apart from the district superintendent.

Contracts would be funded by the same local tax revenues and state aid currently received by the districts.

Education Alternatives has already signed agreements with Johnson Controls World Services, a Florida company, to handle maintenance, custodial, and food services, and with KPMG Peat Marwick, an accounting firm, to produce a strategic plan and examine district finances.

The pact marks the first state agreement for Education Alternatives, which is currently negotiating management deals with several individual schools and is talking with other states about such agreements, Mr. Bennett said.

Mr. Bennett said that much of the work in support of the plan in the months ahead will be explaining that private management is not a threat to public-school educators.

"We don't feel in any respect that we're in competition with the public schools," he said. "We want to be the public schools."

Officials said that Florida schools that opt for private management under the plan are expected to make the transition beginning in the fall of 1993.

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