SEBRING - A charter school start up has no campus site yet, but aims to open a K-8 school between Avon Park and Sebring in August that will accommodate 600 students.
Despite noting some "partially" met standards, most of the district's administrators recommended approval of the CHAMPS charter school application.
The school board hesitated on their decision Tuesday evening, with Board Chairman Andy Tuck asking for a motion three times before Board Member Ronnie Jackson made a motion for approval, which was seconded by Board Member Jan Shoop.
With reassurance from administration, the board voted 4-1 to approve the charter school application. Bill Brantley voted "no."
Before the board approved the application, CHAMPS Charter Schools President Joseph A. Russo said he wanted to create a school that has an environment to support students. He believes in positive reinforcement every day.
"I believe in the children; I believe what I am doing can be very successful," Russo said.
Russo plans on opening charter schools in August in Palm Beach, Osceola and Highlands counties.
He explained his CHAMPS program started as an after-school program.
Russo noted after first serving as a substitute teacher, he earned his degree in education in 2010 from Florida Atlantic University and became a full-time elementary school teacher.
The board asked Russo why he picked Highlands County and inquired about his experience prior to becoming an educator.
His grandparents lived in Sebring when he was a boy and he always wanted to return someday and do something here, he explained. He worked in retail for 17 years, Russo said, which provided him with experience in dealing with people.
Brantley said it's a challenge to open one school. He asked Russo if he plans to open three schools at one time.
Russo responded, "Correct."
Brantley asked, "You don't think that is going to be overwhelming?"
Russo replied, "It's a challenge."
Russo said he is committed and has aligned himself with the proper people and with American Charter Development, which is handling the financing.
With the board's approval of the application, the school board and Russo have 60 days to work out a contract.
According to state statutes, the application approval gives the charter school the option of starting in the 2015-16 school year if it doesn't open in 2014.
At the end of the meeting, School Board Attorney John McClure said Russo has an "up-hill battle" to have everything in place to open the school in August.
After the meeting, Brantley said Russo has been a teacher for only two or three years so from his background it doesn't seem like he has the "credentials."
After the other two schools open, "Then I would be happy to see what he could do in Highlands County," he said.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools created through an agreement or "charter" between the school and the local school board or a state university. This agreement gives the charter school a measure of expanded freedom relative to traditional public schools in return for a commitment to higher standards of accountability.
Currently Highlands County has no charter schools.