St. Lucie officials frustrated that Independence Classical Academy has not provided exceptional student services

PORT ST. LUCIE – The St. Lucie County School Board wants a tighter rein on Independence Classical Academy after hearing in late October that the school opening this year in Fort Pierce has failed to provide mandatory services to its exceptional student education population as well as crucial financial documents to the District.

Deputy Superintendent Jon Prince outlined several areas Oct. 27 in which officials at the District’s newest charter school had failed to fulfill their obligations.

“They had some outstanding legal issues I wanted to address with you,” he said. “There are legal documents that have to be submitted to the District for accountability that include property lease, proof of insurance, staff certifications, code of conduct [and] their crisis response plan. One of our bigger concerns is we need to ensure that the ESE students are getting their supplemental services, and that is required by law.”

Dr. Prince and members of the School Board expressed particular concern about the latter since they’d received no evidence that ICA staff were fulfilling the legal requirements of those students being serviced with Individual Education Plans. Complicating the verification of IEP compliance is the Academy’s lack of adherence to standard COVID-19 safety precautions.

“Currently the charter school has 25 students that are ESE, [and] ICA doesn’t follow our safety protocols with regards to masks and social distancing,” he explained. “We can no longer send staff there – out of an abundance of caution to protect our own staff – and any services that we do provide are via virtual Teams meetings. They have pretty much admitted that the ESE students have not received the appropriate services, and as a result, we’re going to owe them – or the school’s going to owe them – compensatory services.”

Dr. Prince attributed the school’s failure in part to not having “some staff in place” the first three months of the school year, but his explanation failed to satisfy District 2 Board Member Carol Hilson. The latter reminded her fellow Board members that they’d already shuttered one charter school years ago for similar violations.

“I am very angry when I see special needs children that aren’t receiving the appropriate services,” she fumed. “My expectation is that they will run the charter school in the same way the public school is run. They’re receiving the same money we receive, and yet they’re not complying with even minimal standards for special needs children.”

Vice-Chairwoman Kathryn Hensley agreed while rejecting the idea ICA staff lacked sufficient time to be ready for ESE students by the beginning of the school year.

“They actually had more [time] than a lot of charter schools to get their act together and get ready to open,” she said. “So, my real gripe is that they didn’t seem to be as prepared as I had assumed they would be to make sure everything was in place when they actually opened.”

For her part, District 3 Board Member Donna Mills alluded to other charter schools with similar issues, such as Renaissance St. Lucie K-8 in St. Lucie West. In January of this year, the School Board expressed concerns that the campus was violating its enrollment cap and that ESE students at that campus might not be receiving needed services. Renaissance subsequently sued the District but dropped the lawsuit after St. Lucie Schools agreed to raise the enrollment from 1,290 to 1,400 students.

“My concern is for the children, and so as we look into the different charter schools within our community, I think we need to make sure we’re putting the children first in whatever we do,” she said. “The ESE students, they’re our students, whether they attend public schools or not. They’re in our community, and so it is our responsibility to assure those students, even if they are not a public-school student, we’re keeping our eyes open.”

A relatively high number of non-certified instructional personnel on the ICA campus also worries District officials.

“We have shared with the Board in the past with regards to staffing at other charters, and we share the same kinds of concerns with regards to the staffing at the charter Academy,” Dr. Prince said. “Right now, they have 23 instructional staff members. Out of those 23, only 14 are certified, and they have nine substitutes.”

The deputy superintendent went on to explain that St. Lucie Schools’ ratio of certified teachers hovers around 97 percent and more than 90 percent of its classroom teachers are teaching within their specific certification field. Even though ICA has a higher number of out-of-field teachers, he admitted the District was powerless to change that due to the state’s sole oversight of charter schools.

“Over 50 percent of their instructional staff is out of field, whereas in St. Lucie County, we run anywhere between 9 and 10 percent,” he emphasized. “So, we have concerns about the quality of the instruction, but those are things we cannot control.”

That issue also particularly frustrated Dr. Mills.

“My main concern is the instructional positions and the academic level that these children are receiving,” she said. “We have to have high standards even within our charter schools, and we have to make sure as much as we can that they’re accountable in that area. I think we need to really, really makes sure that we are looking into the benefit for the child.”

St. Lucie Schools Chief Financial Officer Michelle Thomas also came to the podium to detail several areas of concern she had with Independence Classical Academy

“One of the items is their Florida Education Finance Program revenue – it’s approximately $133,000 higher than what our records show we paid them,” she said. “Their annual budget in my opinion seems high at $768,000 when I look at monthly activity. It’s about a quarter of the year, [and] they’ve already spent 31 percent. If they continue on that path, they would have spent about 120 percent at the end of the year. We’re just not confident their fund balance designations are appropriate.”

District 5 Board Member Troy Ingersoll said he understood the financial ramifications of opening up a new charter school and cautioned District personnel from jumping in too heavy-handed to begin with.

“We tried to work with another charter school when they were having budgetary issues, and the next thing we know, a conglomeration is underwriting them and taking over the school,” he said. “I would rather have local control before they go out and start selling their school to a conglomeration.”

The day following the meeting, Oct. 28, Ms. Thomas, Executive Director of Student Services Bill Tomlinson and other District officials met with ICA staff to go over their concerns. While not going into specifics, Chief Communications Officer Lydia Martin said Nov. 12 that school and District officials were working collaboratively to resolve the problematic areas.

“Regarding the ESE concerns, ICA is moving forward with a plan for the provision of ESE services for their students,” she said. “The District will be providing the needed level of support to ICA for the training of staff and to ensure compliance. Furthermore, the meeting where ICA discussed their financials was equally successful. ICA was receptive to the recommendations made by the District and they will continue to send their financial reports to the District as required by law.”

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