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Cape council mulls direct control of city charter schools

By Staff | Apr 25, 2017

Issues the city of Cape Coral has within its municipal charter school system might be best resolved by assuming direct control, according to a proposal discussed by City Council Monday.

Council and members of the Cape Coral Charter School Authority met Monday for a joint workshop meeting, with the subject being a presentation by city manager John Szerlag on sustainability and “best practices” for the four-school charter school system.

The system could face a potential shortfall of as much as $2.4 million in the next fiscal year, which begins in July, according to city officials.

Szerlag presented ways the system – which members of the council and Szerlag said is one of the city’s strengths – could do things more efficiently so as to keep it sustainable.

It would cost the city about $222,000 to subsidize the school system if it implements the 57 best practices recommendations.

The charter school system has seen tremendous growth over the past decade, which has put financial pressure on it, Szerlag said. Council asked city staff to review the budgeting and operational practices of the system after an analysis showed the system heading into the red.

Burton & Associates conducted the city-commissioned review and developed a sustainability model, which city staff maintains confirms the need for action.

As does the city, Szerlag and interim school superintendent Jacque Collins put together a three-year budget plan.

Szerlag recommended the school system use city resources under the city clerk, finance, human resources and IT departments, and review their leases on the buildings they lease from the city.

Much of the best practices spending would be to hire three new human resource specialists at a school system that only has one for its 400 employees. Standard practice is one per 100 employees, Szerlag said.

Once the presentation was finished, City Councilmember Marilyn Stout expressed concern over the proposed subsidy and the potential shortfall. She suggested that if city tax dollars were to be used, that the City Council assume the duties of the Council-appointed school governing board as Council did with the South Cape Community Redevelopment Agency board a few years ago. The charter school authority then would become an advisory board.

That position was supported by Councilmember John Caroiscia.

“We need to keep the taxpayers in mind. They were told in 2007 their money would not be used to support the charter schools,” Carioscia said. “I support the Council taking over as the board. Politically, we take the heat for what goes on at the schools.”

Mayor Marni Sawicki was also onboard, saying she didn’t have a very high comfort level with the current board, considering all that has transpired this past year. She conceded Council doesn’t know as much about education as the school board.

Other council members weren’t so eager to take on another responsibility. Richard Leon told council the projected $2.4 million “shortfall” was a wishlist budget, something most city departments turn in to Szerlag when they submit their proposed budgets.

“To take it over would be an easy cop out. The school system needs to act like a department. Let’s do that. We shouldn’t take it over,” Leon said.

Members of the school authority expressed disappointment with the takover suggestion, saying the $2.4 million number came from a one-hour meeting on Friday.

“We don’t have a budget yet. We haven’t had the opportunity to bring the number down,” Authority member Mike Campbell said. “A subsidy of $257,000 in a $30 million budget is a small number. This discourages me.”

“When people talk about the charter school system, they talk about the family atmosphere. If you take over as the board, you will lose the heart of that system that supports it now,” Authority member Tami Traiger said.

The meeting was an emotional one, which included the mayor, who has repeatedly raised concerns over charter school operations, angrily walking out in frustration.

Most members of the school Authority hadn’t yet had a chance to fully vet the recommendations, but thought there still could be some positive forward motion.

“Overall, I believe the Council and the governing board want to come together to continue to build the system,” said Authority member Russell Winstead. “People have different ideas and approaches to things and I think Council decided a governing board is the best way to manage a school system.”