Members of the state board of education on Wednesday expressed frustration at the lack of progress in transitioning Warrington Middle School to a private school.
Officials from the Escambia County school district are now under increasing pressure to sign a contract before the state assembly meets again next month or begin pursuing the less favorable option of closing the school.
“I’m trying to contain the level of frustration I’m feeling right now,” said Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, referring to the district’s inability to make the deal with Charter schools in the USAAfter more than two years of negotiations.
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“This school has been failing students for over a decade, and it is inexcusable that we are still having conversations about adult problems and not focusing on the students.”
Warrington Middle has been a D or F school since 2012, and is the only school in the state with a D for six years or more. And despite the additional funding and resources available to the school, senior advisor Adam Miller says recent proficiency scores in English/Language Arts and Mathematics show there is little improvement.
“As of our second progress monitoring, the mid-year progress monitoring, Warringtons have about 17% of their children at grade level at that point,” said Miller. Maths 16% compared to the state which was 38th and 34th in English and Maths.
Based on a transformation plan approved by the State Council for Warrington Middle, the school was to improve to a scholastic grade of C or higher at the end of 2021-22 or begin the process of transitioning to an independent school.
The Escambia County School District has been in talks with Chartered Schools USA for some time, with negotiations intensifying over the past year. But, there is no contract yet.
In setting the schedule, Escambia’s principal, Dr. Tim Smith, said they hoped to receive an official charter application by March 1.
“Our team was waiting for it. Then we thought it might arrive in the middle of March. It didn’t,” said Smith.
Related: Warrington Middle School earns a D.
Smith says Escambia school officials were looking to move forward with a proposal for a K-8 charter school that would keep the current division in place, a tipping point for the district.
But he says in recent weeks the company has made some crucial changes.
“There was also a new concept added in there, and the idea was to deviate from the school for Warrington Prep students in Year 4. There was a new concept, too, to go from K-8 to K-12.”
In addition, district officials worry that they may be left with liability for building modifications or new building construction costs, if Charter Schools USA does not make the grade and has to close.
“We need to know what’s happening to our students,” said school board president Paul Vitsco. “I need to know the parents that I represent and who elected me, to be able to say, yes, your child will be well cared for, well educated. You can expect your child to accomplish.”
Fetsko admitted that no previous charter school contract negotiations he’s been involved in have been as painful as this one, though a few have been forced to close for various reasons. When pressed, he said the possibility of dissolving Warrington Middle’s attendance zone is one of the biggest sticking points.
“We want the school to stay open. The attendance zone, even if it sizzles, it’s really important to be there,” said Vitsko. “If it disappears, the whole reason charter schools want to come in and get 6-8, it won’t be 6-8 . It would be K-12 and that changes the whole perspective.”
In addition, Fetsko said he did not want to have to transfer students from their neighborhoods to new schools 20 minutes away and complained that Charter Schools USA did not apply.
“What I haven’t heard from either of you is a sense of urgency. These kids deserve better. This school needs to be fixed,” said Vice President Ryan Beattie, after hearing from Vitsco and Smith.
He argued that there was no need for an application from Charter Schools USA since the company was chosen by the district. He then urged Escambia officials to work out the details and get a contract signed by the May 1 deadline.
“This board is impatient with the Escambia County School District. This needs to be done, and it needs to be done immediately.”
In concluding the dialogue with district officials, Board of Education President Ben Gibson agreed that getting the contract was their only option.
“I think you’ll probably be on the agenda for the May meeting,” Gibson said. “And hopefully we have some good news to report.”