Florida court overturns state education board on charter schools

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Pointing to similar cases in other parts of Florida, an appeals court Wednesday overturned a decision by the State Board of Education that would have cleared the way for two charter schools in Indian River County.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal was a victory for the Indian River County School Board, which in 2015 denied two charter-school applications filed by Somerset Academy, Inc. Backers of the charter schools took the issue to the State Board of Education, which rejected the decision of the Indian River board and said Somerset Academy should be allowed to move forward with the schools.

Wednesday's ruling by the appeals court said the Indian River board had “clear and convincing evidence” on a series of issues that supported the denial of the proposed charter schools. As an example, the appeals court said the Indian River board showed that the applications failed to meet financial requirements included in state law.

“The School Board painstakingly pointed out how Somerset's applications patently showed that Somerset's intended budget was financially unrealistic and untenable,” said the 10-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Carole Taylor and joined by judges Melanie May and Cory Ciklin.

The case focused heavily on a state law aimed at helping replicate “high-performing” charter schools. Somerset Academy's applications in Indian River County sought to replicate a high-performing middle school and a high-performing elementary school that it operated in Miami-Dade County, the appeals court said.

But the State Board of Education's handling of replication proposals also has drawn legal challenges in other parts of the state. Wednesday's ruling said the 5th District Court of Appeal overturned a state board decision in a Seminole County case, while the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned a state board decision in a Polk County case.

In the Indian River County case, the 4th District Court of Appeal said it was adopting a standard used in the Seminole and Polk cases that said school boards need to have “clear and convincing” evidence to support their denials of proposed schools.

Along with finding evidence of inadequate financial information, the 4th District Court of Appeal supported other conclusions of the Indian River board, including that Somerset had failed to show it would comply with a federal desegregation order involving the county's schools.

“Although Somerset stated in its applications that its proposed schools would be open to all students in Indian River County, Somerset failed to sufficiently specify how it would comply with the requirements of the desegregation order to achieve racial balance reflective of the community or otherwise offer a viable student and employee recruitment plan to address the federal desegregation order requirements,” the appeals court said. “For example, the recruitment plans submitted by Somerset failed to address the type of transportation needed to achieve diversity.”

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