Renaissance St. Lucie K-8 and St. Lucie Schools now have legal dispute over student cap and unofficial students

ST. LUCIE COUNTY – The St. Lucie County School District and Renaissance St. Lucie K-8 charter school in St. Lucie West will now have to duke it out in court after a warning letter to school officials from the former about too many students on campus and lawsuit notice by the latter passed each other in the mail.

St. Lucie Schools Superintendent E. Wayne Gent emphasized Feb. 10 that a Jan. 28 discussion by the School Board on the letter had been scheduled for several weeks and was not in response to the litigation but rather to concerns of unofficially attending classes at the school.

“Our concern is that some of the those were special needs students and that they were potentially not receiving services, and that was a major, major issue with us,” he said. “We are looking out for the health and safety and welfare of all of the children.

Deputy Superintendent Jon Prince brought the School Board up to speed during its Jan. 28 workshop on the student cap issue at Renaissance St. Lucie, which is part of the Charter Schools USA network.

“In multiple areas in the approved charter, they have a maximum enrollment cap of 1,290 students, and that’s mentioned multiple times,” he said. Our Student Assignment [Office], once they [Renaissance St. Lucie] reach their maximum enrollment, no longer approves additional students to get enrolled in the school. For the last seven years, they’ve started out the school year at Renaissance St. Lucie with more than 1,290 students on their campus. So, this warehousing of students consists of anywhere from three and 10 students.”

Mr. Prince went on to explain that such “warehoused students” attend classes but are not formally enrolled in the school until an enrolled student moves away and creates a vacancy.

“They have somebody on campus that they’ll just slide into that spot,” he added. “They basically have self-reported the practice because their operating company, Charters USA, calls our Student Assignment [Office] and they wonder why we’re not enrolling a student. And we have to remind them that their cap is 1,290 students, and that they can’t exceed that cap.”

Mr. Prince insisted District officials “have informally discussed options” for the last several years to no avail.

“We would always reach an impasse,” he emphasized. “In September of last year, Renaissance St. Lucie requested Florida Department of Education-sponsored mediation in an effort to resolve the issue. The mediation effort was unsuccessful, [and] it’s really become critical this year. We believe that up to 20 students have been warehoused.”

Compounding the issue for District officials is the fact that neither St. Lucie County Schools nor the charter school can claim full-time equivalency funding for the students and concerns that special needs children are now forming part of the warehoused students.

“We can’t claim FTE, and neither can the charter school,” the deputy superintendent added. “It came to our attention this year that two of the students are special education or special needs students, and it exposes our liability with this practice to a claim that the student has been denied a Free and Appropriate Public Education because the IEP [Individualized Education Program] must be serviced when the student is enrolled. Because we can’t see the student as being enrolled nor can we see them being serviced, that becomes an issue.”

Mr. Gent then explained that the issue came to a head last fall and resulted in the Jan. 23 warning letter sent to Renaissance St. Lucie officials.

“I was very concerned that we shouldn’t have any students that aren’t counted for FTE, and in the negotiations with the school, we went to an impasse regarding that,” he said. “Then when we found out regarding the ESE students, I thought it was important our board members were aware of this. I did meet with representatives from the charter school group back in December, and we really didn’t get anywhere with them.”

In response to questions by both Vice-Chairwoman Kathryn Hensley and District 5 Board Member Troy Ingersoll about the school’s maximum enrollment cap, Legal Services Executive Director Johnathan Ferguson admitted that not all charter schools have such a cap and that the 1,290 number at Renaissance St. Lucie was based on maximum fire code capacity.

“We negotiated a firm, hard number based on their original application, which was back in 2008, and they agreed to it,” he said. “That charter’s been renewed twice with the hard cap number in there, and… Renaissance agreed to it.”

Superintendent Gent admitted charter school’s officials have asked to increase that number, but the District has hesitated since Renaissance St. Lucie has the highest number of substitute teachers serving as teachers of record among the county’s charter schools. Mr. Prince told the Board the District has a 3 percent average of such a usage of full-time substitutes, while Renaissance St. Lucie’s number is 46 percent, or 46 of the 82 teachers at the school.

“They have approached to increase that number, and this is [an issue] for the Board, when you look at the number of certified people and substitutes on campus,” Mr. Gent explained. “That creates an issue: The extraordinary high number of subs on the campus would cause one to pause and to really look deeper into that.”

District 3 Board Member Donna Mills then requested further clarification on the exceptional education students not formally enrolled on the campus.

“The warehoused students at Renaissance, just to clarify, you’re saying there are two of them that do not have IEPs because of being warehoused students?” she asked.

Mr. Ferguson explained, however, that the IEPs existed but Renaissance St. Lucie teachers had no access to them due the warehoused status of the students in question.

“We are investigating what that means because the students have been there since August,” he said. “We are currently investigating as to what services they were receiving when the school did not have the IEP and theoretically did not know what services should be provided to those students.”

When Vice-Chairwoman Hensley said such potential IEP violations could make the District liable for federal law violations, Mr. Ferguson agreed but insisted state regulations trumped local school district oversight of charter schools.

“We’re jointly potentially liable because we are the local education agency,” he said. “There’s joint liability between the charter school and the School District, even though we don’t have any control over the day-to-day activities that the charter school does.”

District 2 Board Member Carol Hilson then chimed in, explaining that she’d been frustrated with the not defunct Toussaint Charter School that the District eventually shut down because she’d seen two Down Syndrome students on that campus who she believed had not been provided their needed services.

“These were federal violations, and yet I don’t see the federal government stepping in,” she insisted. “We keep saying parental choice, but obviously the parents must not understand or are not educated. These are issues of children with special needs, and I think that crosses a line into a violation of their [Renaissance St. Lucie] contract with us, and it puts us in an area of liability that I’m not comfortable with.”

Mr. Ferguson said District officials concurred with her sentiments.

“That’s what prompted the letter, and I think it speaks for itself as to what the School Board’s position is,” he said.

Both Mr. Ingersoll and Vice-Chairwoman Hensley also supported the District’s hardline position.

“Everybody knows I hate lawsuits and I hate getting into a legal mess, but this is serious business,” the former insisted. “So, whatever we have to do, but we seriously have to look at holding back their charter.”

Ms. Hensley believes that sometimes one of the contract parties does not take contractual terms seriously enough.

“I think this is beyond that though,” she said. “This is something much more serious.”

Renaissance St. Lucie Principal Christiana Coburn failed to respond by deadline to email questions sent by the Hometown News on Feb. 9. School officials had previously insisted in late January that their lawsuit was not in retaliation for the warning letter but rather to force the District to look at charter school students as children rather than numbers.

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