Martin County School Board postponed resolution on temporary charter school location after lengthy debate

STUART – After much debate April 16 between Martin County School Board members, their attorney and members of the public on the temporary 34th Street location of the Treasure Coast Classical Academy, the Board tabled a resolution on the issue until its May workshop.

A majority of the Board failed to agree on the immediate need for passage of the resolution authored by District 3 Board Member Victoria Defenthaler. Among its stipulations, the resolution stated the Board shared concerns of nearby Palm City Elementary staff that TCCA’s temporary location at the Cross Church on 34th Street could potentially hinder emergency vehicle access to their school in a timely manner. It also called upon “the TCCA staff to find a location that will not negatively impact the present location of Martin County schools and communities.”

Upon introducing the resolution that evening, Ms. Defenthaler admitted a staff member – without specifying who -- had questioned the reliability of the data she used in crafting the resolution for fear of putting a stumbling block in the way of the charter school, which has a legal right to operate in the District and is currently building a permanent location on Cove Road.

“I do not believe state law gives charters unchecked ability to operate in a manner or location that endangers others,” she said. “I believe there is sufficient information -- both formal and observable -- to fairly and reasonably state that there are health and safety concerns. With this said, I believe ignoring this information would be negligent on our part.”

The District 3 Board member based her concerns, echoed by handful of public speakers that evening, on the charter school’s close proximity to Palm City Elementary. Even though Treasure Coast Classical Academy Executive Director Erica Donalds agreed to delay her school’s start time and utilize a two-phase pickup and drop-off schedule to limit having two simultaneously car lines on 34th Street, those measures failed to satisfy Ms. Defenthaler or Palm City parents Mike and Valerie Valade.

“I have a child at Palm City Elementary,” Ms. Valade said. “This is not about not working together with TCCA. Everyone should have choices, but I think this is about giving PCE a choice too. 85 days is a long time for children to be safe.”

Her husband agreed.

“I don’t think there can be enough voices about the safety issue -- it’s almost like you couldn’t make up a worst possible place to stick another school,” he said. “I absolutely feel for the folks looking for a temporary place to have their charter school, but this is not it.”

Kelly Garner concurred, saying as a former PCE parent she spent “11 years in my life sitting in that car line” and nowadays works occasionally at the school as a substitute teacher.

“It rained last week, and we had a car line going until 8:20,” she said. “So now let’s add in all the students at TCCA. They’re never going to get there: You’re going to have tardies all over the place. This is not the place for TCCA to go.”

Former School Board Member Tina McSoley – who, along with Chairwoman Christia Li Roberts voted against approving the TCCA charter contract last year – offered the harshest complaints about the school’s plans to temporarily house an estimated 765 students in the church facility without providing transportation. She also has a child attending PCE.

“I’m looking at 700-plus cars because I know parents and they don’t really like to carpool and it doesn’t work out for very long,” she exclaimed. “But no one has said one word about the safety of my daughter. You cannot put those children in danger. Staggered car lines, not staggered car lines, none of that matters: That road is impassible. It is unacceptable for you and or anyone else in this community to tell emergency vehicles to go around.”

Ms. McSoley said she’s made formal requests of all county public safety officials to provide the community assurances they’d be able to work around the TCCA car line if there was an emergency at PCE.

“You are here to protect every child in this District and not worry about lawsuits,” she added. “I can guarantee you if something happens to my child, I will be the first one getting a lawyer because you’ve had the warning, you know how many kids are there and you know what 34th Street looks like.”

Ms. Donalds also addressed the Board during public comment and insisted that TCCA was working on the safety aspect with the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.

“We’ve been working closely with the Sheriff’s Office to ensure the safety of the temporary facility, the traffic, and our students as well as the students of Palm City Elementary,” she said. “I think if there’s any other suggestions the Board has that we can do to make everyone feel comfortable and ensure that things are operating efficiently and safely for everyone, we’ll be happy to do that. I would just respectfully ask that the Board not consider passing this resolution without considering all of the data that’s been put forth by the experts.”

As far as the Sheriff’s Office’s ability to access the school, Captain Jason Ward told the Board his deputies would get there regardless of peak hour traffic congestion.

“As far as the traffic, we’re going to get there, whether it’s the alternate route or through the congested 34th Street,” he said. “We will move on the sidewalk -- we’ll get there however we have to get there -- it’s not perfect, I understand.”

A few members of the public also spoke out in favor of the 34th Street location, such as

Trina Philipps.

“I’m a Palm City Elementary former parent, I’m a Citrus Grove parent and I’m planning on switching to Classical Academy next year,” she said. “I have no issues with traffic on 34th Street, I’ve never been tardy in five years… and I’ve never felt rushed. The ones that are on 34th Street after 7:26 are flying down the road and have no one in their way.”

Ms. Philipps believes TCCA’s temporary location has become “a personal issue with a couple people at Palm City Elementary.”

“If this is a concern at 8 a.m. when TCCA is going to school, then why is it not an issue at 7:15 when Palm City Elementary is going to school,” she said about the fears of emergency responder access during the car lines. “If the concern is emergency vehicles, there are two lanes, grass, 20 driveways, two streets and seven businesses to pull over into. If there’s an emergency, the Fire Department is literally right next door just under one mile.”

Leann Fries also expressed support for the school, emphasizing that she and her husband have utilized all kinds of schools for their five children.

“Each one of our children is unique and different,” she said. “We have had our children in public school, private school, Catholic school, home school, Florida Virtual School, and now for the upcoming school year, we have our youngest daughter enrolled at TCCA. We are looking forward to this new school choice for her. Let’s put our differences aside, share 34th Street, make new friends and help each other out.”

Before the public comment period ended, District 5 Board Member Michael DiTerlizzi asked Ms. Donalds if she would be willing to delay the school’s start time even further as a precautionary measure.

“Would you be able to adjust that starting time to 8:30 from 8 o’clock, which would give you an extra half hour for stacking and give us a little distance between the times that we start and you start?” he asked.

The TCCA director, however, insisted that any further tweaking of the schedule might cause problems with parents and referred to a private traffic study she had conducted by Kimley Horn & Associates.

“The concern we have with that is the traffic study also recommends that we have staggered start times, so that we split our student body in half and start half an hour apart,” she said. “If the first time was not until 8:30, then the second time would have to be at 9 o’clock, which is pretty late for our parents as you can understand. Our first start time will be no earlier than 8 o’clock as was recommended by the traffic study.”

Mr. DiTerlizzi then emphasized that the District has no authority to regulate the provisional location of the school and the County Commission had declined to opine on the issue.

“The county has no say in this, they have not voted on the 34th Street location, nor are they going to,” he said. “They claim this is a by-right facility because it was a church, a gathering place and a school in the past and nobody ever bothered it back then.”

School Board Attorney Anthony George, who admitted he was the staff member who’d advised Ms. Defenthaler earlier in the process, warned the Board about requesting TCCA to seek an alternate location as part of the resolution.

“If that is you all as a Board asking TCCA to not go to the location on 34th and seek a new location, you all need to be very solid that you aren’t standing alone,” he said. “That this is something that Martin County Fire & Rescue agrees with and that the Sheriff’s Office agrees with, or I’m concerned how this Board can defend itself in an administrative law proceeding.”

Ms. Defenthaler subsequently agreed to delete that part of the resolution, and the Board then voted unanimously to take up the discussion at its May 7 workshop in an attempt to further tweak the ordinance and work on possible solutions in the interim.

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