The St. Lucie County School District unanimously approves conditional contract for planned Port St. Lucie campus

PORT ST. LUICE – More than 20 public speakers urged the St. Lucie County School Board April 30 to approve a contract with Somerset Career Academy so the charter school company can build a planned Career Academy in the Tradition Jobs Corridor here. After a lengthy discourse by Superintendent E. Wayne Gent on the history of Florida charter schools and the limited role local school boards have in regulating them, he recommended approval with last-minute conditions, and the Board voted unanimously to approve the conditional charter contract.

Even though School Board Member Kathryn Hensley voted with her peers for approval, she still expressed dissatisfaction with the Somerset proposal to launch its new vocational-technical campus with the middle school portion.

“I would have thought if we were going to do a trade school, we did not start at sixth grade,” she said. “I personally had hoped there would be a secondary/post-secondary alliance of a career college or a trade college, but that’s not what’s in front of us today.”

Ms. Hensley admitted current Florida law gave the District “very little recourse” for rejecting the proposal but hoped accountability measures and other details negotiated into the contract over the next few weeks would provide the School Board more guarantees.

“This may be a piece that is going to be important for our community, but we need to make sure without a doubt it is meeting the mission that is stated,” she added. “That it is, indeed, staying focused and not something that actually detracts from the needs of this community but becomes something that’s an asset.”

Board Member and former educator Carol Hilson called the planned vocational/technical school “an excellent opportunity and an excellent idea” but expressed concerns about both public and charter schools relying on substitute teachers to cover core classes during teacher shortages.

“In our charter schools across the board, 50 percent are substitute teachers,” she said. “High level math and science classes should not be taught with substitute teachers… because right now in many of our charter schools, the teachers are not degreed and they are not certified. I’m not saying that’s going to happen with Somerset… this is about protection for my community.”

Superintendent Gent launched the discussion speaking extensively about the District’s vo/tech opportunities already in existence and the failure rate of charter schools in general.

“Since 1998, 373 charters in Florida have closed,” he said, attributing the failures to financial pressure, financial mismanagement and academic reasons. “It’s important that charters are innovative and really not duplicative, or it’s really a disservice to our taxpayers and to the system itself.”

Port St. Lucie Councilman and former school board member John Carvelli was the second member of the public to speak, urging the Board to approve the contract negotiations. He and the rest of the City Council agreed to begin negotiations with Somerset last October after the company was the sole respondent to a request for qualifications for a new career/technical center. City leaders hope to alleviate a skilled-worker deficit revealed by a trades analysis conducted by the Economic Development County of St. Lucie County.

“I followed the charter application for Somerset Academy since its inception,” Mr. Carvelli said. “It is consistent with the Economic Development Council Skills Gap Study, the Florida Labor Market Index for job training and the needs of local employers. They’re proposing a comprehensive program under one roof, and this will be in our business corridor of 1,200 acres and will become an anchor for the many businesses that are contacting us to grow this community.”

Somerset College Preparatory Academy Principal Erika Raines addressed the Board, insisting that Superintendent Gent’s description of failed charter schools did not apply to her organization.

“Just so the public is aware and for the record, not one of those was a Somerset school,” she exclaimed. “[Out of] 69 Somerset schools, zero have closed.”

Ms. Raines also decried a list of last-minute conditions the School Board was attempting to incorporate in the Somerset Career Academy contract. These include clarifications and/or additions to the descriptions of the Career Academy’s seven career clusters; requiring that every student be enrolled in at least one vocational-technical career pathway every year and submission of annual documentation of the same; and requiring that any additions or deletions to the career clusters or the programs of study within the clusters be approved as an amendment to the Charter by the School Board. The Academy must also provide a full menu of services for students with disabilities, provide free school bus transportation and ensure any principal holds a valid Florida Educational Leadership Certificate.

“We received the District’s feedback yesterday afternoon, so unfortunately with less than 18 hours to review your feedback and conditions, Somerset finds itself in a very uncomfortable position,” she said. “We would respectfully request that the Board approve the application on its obvious merits as described by your staff and allow those conditions that are stipulated to be negotiated through the contract negotiation process.”

Bill Patterson came to the principal’s defense, admitting he had two grandchildren enrolled at one of the Somerset campuses.

“I believe that Somerset has gone above and beyond to facilitate a good quality education for these children, and I think, in part, because there’s so much involvement required by the families,” he said. “You need to only look at the record that Principal Raines has had over the past few years, and I’m sure that will trickle down to the vocational school as well.”

Cindi Bowling agreed but admitted she forced the Somerset principal to prove herself in the beginning.

“I think we all agree, it’s not really a debate about the want and need for a vocational school,” she said. “What we’re discussing here is really Somerset as a charter and Ms. Raines as a principal. When Somerset first came, I was an Imagine [charter school] parent and I had my doubts about Ms. Raines. I made it clear, and I ate those words so much. I believe that Somerset can do what it says it can do, and I believe Ms. Raines will do what she says she will do.”

Local licensed midwife Margo Keane told the Board she learned her trade on a vocational campus and had struggled with the traditional classroom setting until discovering her calling in her senior year.

“I was the type of student that usually infuriates most teachers: I was a really smart kid but uninterested in the schoolwork,” she said. “It wasn’t until I graduated by the skin of my teeth and started my vocational training that I really started to bloom as a student. While I struggled to keep a C average in high school, I maintained a 4.0 my entire senior year while taking classes like pharmacology and anatomy.”

Emphasizing the fact she’s delivered more than 200 babies over the last six years, Ms. Keane urged the Board to consider other students like herself and approve the Somerset proposal.

“Over half of the 20 fastest growing careers as projected by the U.S. Department of Labor are going to vocational school and certificate program graduates,” she added. “I want you to think of all the other kids like me because there will always be more kids like me. Kids can start their careers right out of high school without accumulating mountains of debt that many of my generation have.”

Ralph Arza, the director of government relations for the Florida Charter School Alliance, defended the 200 successful member schools in his organization and insisted it was not even in the District’s power to ensure the success of the planned vocational school.

“Charter schools in Florida exist for one reason, because a parent chooses every day to send their child there,” he said. “Just because you approve this doesn’t mean the school will open. It will only open if the parents in this community want to support it. All you’re doing is allowing them to offer the opportunity to your community.”

Right before the vote of approval, Board Member Troy Ingersoll had both praise and a word of caution for Ms. Raines and any future administrators of the planned Somerset Career Academy.

“Ms. Raines is a phenomenal leader, and she does an exceptional job,” he said. “My concern is when a good leader leaves, what will happen to the school afterwards? Sometimes a school has a tendency to change direction. Just be careful and hire higher quality people and be careful how far out you go and keep your effectiveness.”

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