Lee County School Board members decided Tuesday to close the doors of a Bonita Springs charter school — but not without expressing considerable frustration with the corporation they say already abandoned other local students.
Richard Milburn Academy South follows a Fort Myers branch of the school in shuttering this year. Both are charter schools that serve students 21 and under who were unsuccessful in traditional school settings. They are operated by a for-profit company, Richard Milburn, which asked board members to terminate the charter for the Bonita Springs location based on financial distress.
"I know that's how companies make decisions — if this plant over here that's making cars isn't making enough money, then guess what, they're going to close that plant," board member Jeanne Dozier said. "Well, these are not cars and steel automobiles. These are kids that we're talking about."
Dozier spoke after hearing from about 10 students, parents and staff from Richard Milburn Academy South, who urged board members not to close the school.
"If you close this school, there is nowhere else for me to go," student Beatrice Valero told board members. "This is my only chance."
Other students shared goals of becoming doctors, Marines or pilots after getting their high school diplomas.
"For many of the students at our school, this is their last hope for pursing a high school diploma," said Vangeline Mitchell, who said her son graduated from the school last year and is now going into the Marines.
The corporation that oversees the school said they needed to close Richard Milburn Academy South, which opened in August 2011, because only 74 students enrolled — less than the number needed to maintain operations. They asked the board to waive a requirement of 120 days written notice of the intention to close.
"We are saddened that we will no longer have the opportunity to provide schooling to Lee County students in Bonita Springs in a nontraditional setting," Houston Conley, chairman of Richard Milburn Academy of Florida, Inc., wrote in a letter to Lee schools Superintendent Joseph Burke. "We are hopeful that the students' experiences with us give them the confidence and knowledge needed to make a smooth transition to another Lee County school."
Before voting to close the school, Lee school board members discussed several options, including bargaining with the corporation and taking legal action against it.
"They're fooling around with 200-plus lives when you include teachers and administrators and all the rest of it," board member Tom Scott said.
Keith Martin, the board's attorney, said suing the company is likely not a viable option, because the school is operated by a nonprofit company contracted by the for-profit corporation. The Lee County School Board only has a relationship with the nonprofit, he said.
Board members also raised concerns about the company's third Lee County location, in Lehigh Acres, especially after learning it failed to submit a required financial statement in August. District staff plan to look into that school's financial state.
Ultimately, the board voted 3-2 to close the Bonita Springs site effective Oct. 5, with Scott and Don Armstrong opposing. But they asked the district to look into other options to take care of the affected students, preferably keeping them together as a group. Options discussed included using district facilities as a new site to teach the students, and operating it as a district-run charter.
Having the school board's support struck a chord with students, who celebrated the fact the board is looking into its options.
"The board members, they care," Ibis Morales said. "They're going to come up with something to help us."
In other news:
April's Pie Eatery, based in downtown Fort Myers, plans to open a location next month inside the district's headquarters at 2855 Colonial Boulevard. Salvatore's, the most recent restaurant located inside the facility, closed about four months ago. The pie restaurant plans to serve district employees and the public, and give the district 8 percent of its gross sales.