November 24, 2014

Education: Charter Leader- Southeast- March 2003

Pat Dunnigan | 3/1/2003
Five years ago, as Pembroke Pines' population was doubling and portable classrooms blossomed like mushrooms on school campuses, city officials decided they couldn't wait for the county school district to catch up.

They applied for a charter to run their own 600-student elementary school. Today, more than 4,000 students later, the city operates the largest charter school system in the country, with three elementary schools, two middle schools, a high school and two preschool programs.

City Manager Charlie Dodge and Mayor Alex Fekete say they never intended to end up running their own mini-school district. But it's working out so well, Fekete muses about the possibility of running all of the city's schools.

The charter schools are enormously popular with parents. A waiting list swelled to 8,000 last year. Class sizes -- capped at 25 -- are probably the biggest draw. The schools are built and run with state funds and money collected by the school district. But city commissioners act as the school board. Principals, says Dodge, are "basically autonomous."

Amalia Pares-Pomerantz spent 20 years with the Broward school district before taking the principal's job at Pembroke Pines Charter High School in 2000. She reports only to the city manager. As a result, she says, she can get things done quickly. "In the school district, there are layers and layers between the principals and the superintendent."

County schools Superintendent Frank Till dismisses suggestions that charter schools are doing anything better or more innovative than the district's schools. "They're more of a convenience than an innovation," he says. But he acknowledges that the Pembroke Pines schools came along at the right time.

Now, however, Till says the district is catching up, and any new charter schools in southwest Broward would risk putting the system "out of balance."

Dodge and Fekete disagree. They want to open a 600-student elementary school with a special program for autistic children in September. When they failed to get the school district's approval in November, they went to Florida State University -- where the school's college of education is authorized to charter schools for research and teaching opportunities.

In late January, just as city officials were beginning to fear that school administrators' objections had sabotaged their chances with FSU, the city reached an agreement with the university. Fekete says he was determined to open the school one way or another: "Stopping construction was not an option for me."

IN THE NEWS

Boca Raton -- Timonium, Md.-based venture capital firm Grotech Capital Group plans to open a four-employee south Florida office this year and is looking at sites in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale.

Broward County -- Broward Democratic Party chief Mitch Ceasar is facing criticism for the party's declining influence and for perceptions that his lobbying practice interferes with his ability to lead the party.

Broward County commissioners reluctantly advanced elections supervisor Miriam Oliphant $170,000 to help tide the office over through last month's two municipal primaries. But the office was expected to be broke again by this month, when Oliphant has to run 12 city elections. Oliphant overspent last year's budget by nearly $1 million and had spent most of this year's budget by late January, four months into the fiscal year.

Delray Beach -- Officials are contemplating a change in the city's contract with Match Point Inc., which runs the International Tennis Championships, the premier event of the city's tennis center. The company has had difficulty finding a title sponsor for the March 1-9 event. One option it was considering: Having the city take over the search and locating smaller sponsors in exchange for a greater share of parking and sponsorship revenue.

City officials want back in the good graces of the Tree City USA program, which bestows the title on cities with active tree conservation programs. Delray Beach hasn't had the title since 1993 but is now contemplating an urban forestry program to add trees to city streets and parks.

Fort Lauderdale -- Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport officials are hoping that two high-frequency sound devices will reduce the rising number of bird-plane collisions, which have increased because of airport expansion and dwindling habitat.

Hollywood -- Deerfield Beach officials have voiced objections to a plan that calls for "borrowing" sand from five sites between Deerfield Beach and Lauderdale-by-the-Sea to renourish a stretch of beach that includes the lavish Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa.

Martin County -- County officials underestimated the cost of repaving Palm Beach Road and widening the intersection of High Meadows Avenue and Martin Downs Boulevard and now have to figure out how to come up with an extra $1.6 million. County Administrator Russ Blackburn says the rising cost of asphalt is to blame.

Palm Beach County -- After acquiring Odwalla Inc. of Half Moon Bay, Calif., the Coca-Cola Co. dropped the company's plans to bring a juice-processing plant to a 35,000-sq.-ft. plant in western Palm Beach County.

Plantation -- Officials repealed a never-used ordinance prohibiting commercial fishing in the city's seven miles of canals after a St. Petersburg commercial fisherman included the city in a lawsuit against 46 cities that restrict commercial fishing.

Norton Museum
WORK OF ART

PALM BEACH -- The Norton Museum of Art's two-year expansion project is scheduled for completion this month with the opening of a $30-million, 42,000-sq.-ft. addition.

Tags: Southeast

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