POINCIANA – A private charter school company, with an impressive list of A-rated schools under its belt, comes knocking on the community’s door.
In these tough economic times, when county budgets are tight, the firm offers to construct a k-8 charter school in the community, and the county would even benefit from the revenue it brings in.
Quite simply, what’s not to like, said Nick Murdock.
“We’re optimistic that we can get a positive vote,” Murdock said. “They really have no reason to vote us down.”
On Tuesday, members of the nonprofit organization that Murdock is the chairman of, the Poinciana Economic Development Alliance, will travel to Bartow for a public hearing before the Polk County School Board, and will be asking the school district to approval an application by Somerset Academy to build a charter school on the Polk County side of Poinciana — a section of villages with 32,000 residents, but only two schools, and no middle or high school.
Poinciana, a community of ten villages, cuts across Osceola and Polk counties, and has more than 84,000 residents. It also has three high schools, but all three are on the Osceola County side, including New Dimensions High, which is also a charter school.
But since Poinciana’s Polk County residents do not pay property taxes to Osceola County, students living across the county line can’t attend those schools. Instead, Poinciana’s Polk students attend Haines City High School.
“This is just part one of a long process,” said Wendy Farrell, a member of the PEDA board of directors. “Good schools build communities. I’m involved in Friday night football games with my sons, and they build communities. You go down to the Polk County side and there is no community, and there are no Friday night football games because there is no high school there.”
For months now, PEDA has been lobbying the Polk County School Board to build more schools there, but funding has been an issue. Polk County was very hard hit by the collapse of the housing market and the national recession.
But the flip side of that, Murdock said, is so many Poinciana-Polk students need schools where they live, and not in neighboring communities.
“We have thousands of kids who need to go to school in Poinciana,” he said.
Enter Somerset Academy.
Somerset Academy is a charter school company based in Pembroke Pines, which contacted PEDA to express interest in submitting an application to the Polk County School Department last July.
Murdock said the firm recognized that the student body is readily available in Poinciana-Polk to fill a new school immediately, with an estimated 13,000 students there.
Somerset Academy, Inc. was founded in 1997 when it opened its first school, Somerset Neighborhood Charter School, in Miramar. At the time, it consisted of two trailers providing education to 50 students, one serving 25 students in grades kindergarten through the second grade, and the other serving 25 students in grades three through five. The school has grown since then, and a year later Somerset Neighborhood Charter School became one of the first charter schools in the state of Florida to seek and receive accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
According to the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, charter schools are public schools that operate under a performance contract. The charter contract is between the charter school governing board and the sponsoring community, and details the school’s mission, program, goals, methods of assessment and ways to measure success.
Murdock said his own research indicates Somerset Academies has a good reputation. As of the 2007-2008 academic school year, all Somerset elementary and middle schools achieved an “A” grade collectively, while the high school achieved a “B” on the State of Florida’s A+ Accountability Reports.
Now it’s on to the Polk School Board to present this proposal.
“We’re getting our charter school up for a vote on Tuesday,” Murdock said. “One way or another, there will be a lot of news coming out of Bartow. We’ve given them proposals for a new high school and middle school, and for redoing Lake Marion Creek (Elementary) as a middle school, what it was originally intended for. We’ve established our need beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
Murdock is hopeful that during the school board meeting, which begins at 1:30 p.m., PEDA can make a strong and persuasive case for Somerset Academy, “which is a great A-plus charter school,” Murdock said. “They submitted an application for a k-8 school, and we ended up getting what I feel is the best charter school application in the state, and Somerset is bending over backwards to help the county with this. Somerset will build and pay for the facility. That’s all taken care of with the Somerset charter, and the school system gets to keep a percentage of the money the school brings in. It doesn’t cost the school system any money, and the need truly is there.”
Murdock said if the school board disagrees, PEDA will appeal that decision to the state.
“If PEDA hadn’t pushed the issue, we’d still be sitting here with nothing,” he said. “To me the bottom line is it’s the right thing to do. If not, we will go through the appeals process in Tallahassee and get it approved there.”
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