SEBRING - The School Board of Highlands County approved a charter school contract Tuesday, but cautioned the president of the planned school to take his time to do things correctly so students are not adversely affected.
The board approved, by 4-1 vote, a contract with CHAMPS Charter Schools.
At the end of the meeting, School Board Chairman Ronnie Jackson directed a brief comment to CHAMPS President Joseph A. Russo.
"Best of luck to you, but we will be watching, sir," Jackson said.
The board approved the charter school's application in October, also by a 4-1 vote. School Board Member Bill Brantley cast the sole "no" vote for both the application and contract.
At Tuesday's school board meeting, Deputy Superintendent Rodney Hollinger noted that the charter applicant had met all statutory requirements.
School Board Attorney John McClure advised that if the board did not approve the contract it would be required to cite a statutory problem with it.
School Board Member Andy Tuck made a motion to approve the contract and School Board Member Jan Shoop seconded the motion. As mentioned, the board approved the contract by a 4-1 vote, but the board members made statements about the charter startup in their closing comments.
School Board Member Donna Howerton said the board has shared its concerns with Russo.
She hopes that nothing is rushed into that will affect the students.
Shoop said, "I certainly hope you meet all your goals, but take your time."
Brantley said he has already stated his opinion.
In October, Brantley noted that Russo has yet to open any of his planned charter schools in the state.
Russo has been a teacher for only two or three years so from his background it doesn't seem like he has the "credentials," Brantley said.
With the board's approval of the contract, the charter school can start classes in either August 2014 or August 2015.
After Tuesday's meeting, Russo said he understood the school board's concerns and that a previous charter school in the county had left "a bad taste."
He said he wasn't going to rush the process of opening the school. After the holiday's he will focus on finding a suitable location, likely between Avon Park and Sebring, to construct the school.
Russo said he was looking at a "six-month window" for construction and financing was not a problem.
If he doesn't find a suitable site by February he may defer the start of the school until August 2015, he said.
CHAMPS plans on opening a kindergarten through eighth-grade school in Highlands County with a projected enrollment of up to 600.
According to its mission statement, CHAMPS Charter School plans on providing "the highest standards of academic excellence incorporating a guided self-directed learning philosophy."
Russo said he is farther along in his plans to open charter schools in August in Palm Beach and Osceola counties.
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.