Lack of land and political support for the Marco Island charter high school may turn into a lawsuit against the Collier County School Board, the school’s proponents contend.
The charter high school is “suffering setbacks at the hands of the Collier County School Board,” according to a letter requesting intervention by the Florida Commissioner of Education Eric Smith.
The letter, sent to Smith by Marco Island Academy Chairwoman Jane Watt on Dec. 3, alleges that the school board and district have stifled the proposed school’s progress due to politics and personal attachments to Lely High School.
Lely is the zoned school for Marco Island residents.
The district has been fighting Watt every step of the way to protect what she called one of the lowest performing high schools in the U.S., consistently receiving a C or D grade from the state, she said.
School board members, including Vice Chair Roy Terry, weren’t aware of the letter and were reluctant to share their immediate reactions.
Terry reiterated, however, that the School Board voted 4 to 1 to approve the charter application Nov. 10. Board member Pat Carroll of District 1, which includes Marco Island, was the lone dissenter.
The School Board’s decision to delay their vote by three weeks caused potential financial backers to withdraw contributions, Watt said.
Then another blow came on Nov. 17, she said, when Superintendent Dennis Thompson denied a request to build on the well-known Tract K.
The 11.6 acres were deeded to the school board in 1989 by Marco Island developer Deltona Corporation at a cost of $10. Although there’s a perceived intention it be used for a school, there isn’t a deed restriction.
“Opening the school by August is our main concern. Tract K is one of many obstacles put in our path,” Watt said.
She wants Smith to make Collier County school officials follow the state’s laws regarding charter schools. However, how much Smith can help remained unclear as of Tuesday evening.
“At this point, staff is still reviewing the letter and looking to see what options we might have,” said Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.
Among the allegations of improper procedure is that the school board will withdraw their approval if the charter school doesn’t meet more deadlines set by the board, Watt said.
The academy’s requests for temporary use of property adjacent to Marco Island Charter Middle School, as well permanent use of Tract K, were both denied.
The presence of protected nesting American Bald Eagles and a new group, called the Marco Eagle Sanctuary Foundation, seeking to restrict any building on Tract K for years if Marco Island voters will agree, presents more obstacles.
“If we are unable to secure this location, it will defeat the very purpose of our community school initiative,” Watt said.
A perceived conflict of interest is behind the lack of support, Watt indicated.
“The district has a vested interest in protecting Lely financially since there are open seats as well as personally as many of the district members are closely attached to Lely,” she said.
Terry and Michele LaBute, who is the district’s chief operations officer, were former Lely principals, Watt cited. Current Lely principal, Ken Fairbanks, was on the charter review committee, and, Carroll had two children who attended Lely, Watt cited.
Funding follows students to the school they attend, so the proposed school would likely take money away from Lely, although officials haven’t shared approximately how much is at stake.
Staff writer Kate Albers contributed to this report.