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Sarasota's High Charter Marks

"The charter schools that come here have to buy into the fact that they have to be high quality, always striving for better performance," says Deborrah Metheny, supervisor of choice and charter schools. [Photo: Mark Wemple]

Talk to charter school operators and management companies around Florida and you'll get an earful about school districts they view as uncooperative at best and hostile at worst. Then there's Sarasota. "Sarasota is probably the most enlightened district in the state," says Tim Kitts, who heads charter schools in Bay County and chairs the advocacy committee for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.

The reason charters around Florida look longingly to Sarasota owes much to tax-revenue sharing. Sarasota is the very rare district in Florida that shares so-called capital millage — the piece of your property tax bill that goes to fund school capital improvements. Sarasota also shares locally voted additional property tax money. The eight charters in the county use the money to buy buses and equipment, repair buildings or make lease-purchase payments on buildings. Money from the other pot funds operations. "These are taxpayer dollars that go with all the kids," regardless of whether they are in a district school or charter, says the district's Deborrah Metheny, supervisor of choice and charter schools. This year, $5.8 million went from the district to charters. District budget director Al Weidner says there's no doubt the money helps the schools' performance, even though when he meets with his peers from other districts at conferences, "they sort of look at me like I have two heads."

Candace Lankford, a Volusia County school board member and president of the Florida School Boards Association says, "There's not enough revenue that the districts need to maintain their own facilities. This is not the districts not wanting to share. It's a matter of not having enough revenues to maintain what they have to for the vast majority of students." She noted that a proposed state budget set aside state construction trust funds for charters this year but not for traditional schools.

Metheny says the district's outlook is about more than money. "We've tried over the years to build a relationship that's supportive rather than competitive. Our students move from charter schools to traditional schools to home school to charter school — they're all our students," she says. Some 4,100 students, or 10% of the county's public school total, attend charters.

That's not to say Sarasota rolls over for charters. Four charter school applicants have appealed the district's denial of their applications since 2005, according to state figures. The state's review commission upheld Sarasota's decision twice and has overturned the district twice.