Fla. City Will Open Its Own Charter Schools

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Crowded schools are a fact of life in booming Broward County, Fla.

But one of the sprawling county's nearly 30 municipalities hopes to ease its classroom shortage by opening its own charter schools in August.

The Broward County school board earlier this year unanimously approved a charter for the city of Pembroke Pines, population 105,000. And while the city holds the charter, it is working with a private development company that will have a hand in everything from building the schools to managing their operations.

Experts point to Pembroke Pines as an example of cities using charter schools to become more involved in education and gain more influence over it.1

"We [the city] are the public education alternative to public education," Mayor Alex G. Fekete of Pembroke Pines said. "We said, 'Hey, municipalities can do something about education.' And we want to bring education back to the neighborhoods."

While Pembroke Pines is not the first city to hold a charter, its project is being billed as the first designed to serve a range of students. Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1995 launched a charter high school for dropouts and at-risk students, and many other municipalities have collaborated in charter school development without holding the charter.

In Milwaukee last week, the city council voted to approve policies the city would follow in granting charters and overseeing charter schools--publicly funded schools that are freed from certain rules in exchange for greater accountability for student results. Milwaukee is believed to be the first municipality that can award charters on its own.2

Building New Models

For officeholders like Mr. Fekete, Florida's charter school law offers the city a way to respond to the community's concerns about its schools. The city plans to build smaller schools that deliver high-quality education while being more cost-effective than those run by the district, said City Manager Charles F. Dodge. The city intends to pay off its school construction loans through business donations and money raised through fees for preschool and before- and after-school care, he said.

On average, the 220,000-student Broward County district builds elementary schools to serve roughly 1,000 students, spokesman Joe Donzelli said. Pembroke Pines is planning two campuses to open in August, one serving 250 children in grades K-2, another serving 500 students in grades K-5. The city and its development partner expect to spend only $8,600 per student to build the elementary schools, while the district generally spends $13,000 a student.

To cut costs, the city plans to privatize many services and share resources with the schools. For example, because other city buildings have industrial kitchens to prepare food, the new schools will have only warming kitchens.

In addition to the schools' relatively small size, the city is highlighting core academics, character development, technology, and parent involvement. Open to students countywide, the city has received more than 1,300 applications for 750 classroom spots.

Mayor Fekete and other city leaders are quick to acknowledge they do not have expertise building or running schools. They have hired Jacksonville, Fla.-based Haskell Co., one of the nation's largest design-and-build companies. Former Miami-Dade County schools chief Octavio J. Visiedo leads the company's education services division, which focuses on developing charter schools. Mr. Visiedo helped draft the city's charter application and will work as a consultant to the schools' principal and the city, which may try to open charter schools for middle and high school students, too.

Principals or lead teachers will oversee daily operation of the schools in conjunction with an advisory board of city officials, parents, and business leaders.

New Neighborhood Schools?

The Broward County district has had to balance tensions between the county's more established communities in the eastern end with the newer communities in the west. All are clamoring for classroom space in a district that grows by nearly 10,000 students a year. That is partly why the district welcomed the Pembroke Pines project and other charter schools, said Damian Huttenhoff, the director of district administration.

"We are moving aggressively toward school choice within our system," he said. Seven charter schools are expected to be open in Broward County by the fall.

Under most state charter laws, other cities could pursue charters of their own in the name of school improvement, said Ted Kolderie, a prominent charter school proponent based in St. Paul, Minn.

"Cities usually say, yes, we want quality schools, but there's not much we can do about it and the schools aren't our business. But now this is a light that isn't ever going to turn off," he said.

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 3

Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Fla. City Will Open Its Own Charter Schools
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