Charter School Law
Florida is a vibrant state for Charters, with over 650 Charter Schools and 250,000 charter school students. While there is great opportunity, there are many challenges to successfully opening and operating a charter school in Florida, particularly with the increased district resistance, as charters have grown. We have been working with Charter School issues since 1999, and are one of only a handful of Florida Law firms with a significant charter law practice. We have the privilege of legally representing dozens of charter schools and many charter management organizations in Florida: virtual charters, blended learning and bricks & mortar charters as well. We have also helped out of state charters open in Florida .
The Woodring law firm can provide legal assistance to charter schools with most legal issues during the life of a charter, and if there is an area of charter school law we do not handle, such as facilities bonding, we often work with good people who specialize in those areas. The law relating to Florida Charter Schools is quite complex. A charter school needs to understand not only the law that specifically applies to charter schools, such as the requirements for applying, opening, operating and expanding a charter school, and how to challenge a denial or termination of a charter school, but also the general Florida and Federal legal requirements applicable to public schools, including charters.
Charter schools are exempt from certain requirements that apply to regular public schools, see § 1002.33(16) Florida Statutes, but many other statutory requirements still apply. A good location for the updated collection of laws and rules that apply only to Charter schools is here on the Florida Department of Education Website.
We enjoy working with good charter schools and management organizations, and helping troubled charter schools survive to be better. If we may be of assistance to you and your charter school or charter management organization, please give us a call to discuss.
When Legal Issues Arise for Charter Schools.
Legal issues can arise at any point in the life of a charter school, so having legal counsel familiar with charter schools and general educational legal requirements is important. It can be less costly to get good legal advice to head off a problem, than it will be to deal with a full blown legal concern- we always enjoy the opportunity to help charters stay out of the fire, instead of pulling them out of the fire.
Issues will arise during the normal operation of the school, such as governance, ethics, employment and student issues, testing irregularities, discipline issues, poor academic performance, ESE, ELL or Section 504 issues. Many of the concerns that arise during the normal operation of a charter are concerns that would be present in any operating public school, but, unlike school districts, many charters do not have the luxury of a full-time legal department.
Charter Schools: Legal Concerns During the Application Phase.
The deadlines for applying for Charter schools in Florida are tight. Applications have to be submitted by August 1st for charters that want to start the following August. As of the 2014 application cycle, there is now an opportunity to file an application with a school district by May 1st and correct district identified deficiencies in the application (or more likely correct the real problems and defend the perceived ones). We are working with clients on putting good applications together and encouraging all our clients to take advantage of this new opportunity for feedback by July 1st. Update: unfortunately, most districts are not doing an early good faith review, so it may take litigation to enforce the meaningful early review opportunity.
School districts are to take action on charter applications within 60 days, unless both parties agree to an extension of the deadlines. If a school district denies an application, the Charter School Board has to file an appeal brief with the State Board of Education within 30 days of receiving notification of denial, and District has 30 days to respond. There is a hearing before Charter School Appeal Commission which makes a recommendation, and then a further appeal hearing before State Board of Education then makes the final decision. High performing charters that are denied, follow the same basic timelines, but do not stop first at the Charter School Appeal Commission.
Some examples of legal issues at the application phase are: budgetary issues, narrative and budgetary consistency;whether the application answers are sufficient to meet the statutory and model form requirements; did the District demonstrate good cause to deny; how ESE and ELL students are handled; the makeup of the not for profit board applying for the school; arms length issues for boards and Charter Management Organizations (CMO), or education management organizations (EMO); ethics and background check issues; specific considerations for virtual charters or blended charters; the preservation or development of a record for purposes of appeal.
Thirty days to file an appeal brief of a charter application is a very short time, particularly when many charter schools are being denied in the same time frame. If at all possible it it advisable to have an attorney working with you and familiar with the filed application before an appeal has to be filed. An attorney can also be invaluable in counseling on how to frame portions of your application to meet statutory requirements and avoid giving good cause to deny, and how to respond to district inquiries about the application. There is also a statutory requirement that the district give a charter applicant an opportunity to cure certain matters before denying an application.
Charter Schools: Legal Concerns During the Initial Opening.
So, your application has been approved. Congratulations! but your work has just started. One of the first things you will need to do is negotiate a good charter contract with the district. They will provide you a draft contract, but often many provisions may not track or will be in excess of statutory requirements. Whether your charter can be successful often will be tied to the flexibility and accountability measures you agree to in the charter contract. There is now a Standard Charter Contract, but many districts are trying to significantly modify the standard contract, so you will still need to negotiate. If the terms proposed by the district are too onerous, there is a mediation and an administrative hearing process with DOAH that you can use to resolve remaining issues. If the District is unreasonable it its requirements for the contract terms, you may be able to recover attorney fees and costs from the district when you prevail at a DOAH hearing.
Once you have a charter contract, there may be questions that arise about the facility you plan to use, whether you are buying or leasing, issues about transportation contracts, food service, etc. The issues that can arise are endless, and may seem trivial, but can become major if not dealt with expeditiously. There may also be reasons a charter will need to amend a contract, or even seek legal guidance from the Attorney General. We provide general counsel services to Charter Schools and Management Organizations that want to address potential problems before they hit the newspaper.
Charter Schools: Legal Concerns During an Attempted Termination.
Attempted terminations of charter schools are a more complicated matter than the initial appeal of the denial of an application. Prior to 2011, Charter terminations were also appealed to the State Board of Education. Now a termination of a charter gives rise to a right to a full administrative hearing under 120.68 Florida Statutes, with a hearing being requested within 14 days. There are also some different procedures that apply if an immediate termination is attempted. The clarification of the right to the due process of full hearing is a legislative change that arose from the State Board’s reversal of the immediate termination of the Rise Academy Charter, a case that we argued to the State Board. Any further appeal from the administrative hearing is to a District Court of Appeal.
An appeal of a termination of a charter gives a much better opportunity to put on evidence and witnesses and protect the rights of a charter than existed prior to 2011, but is a full trial, just without a jury, that will be conducted on an expedited basis. Districts are familiar with hearings conducted under Chapter 120, since these hearings are triggered for teacher discipline or dismissals, among other things. Consequently, a charter school facing termination needs to make sure that they have counsel familiar with charter schools and the Chapter 120 Florida Statutes hearing process. In limited circumstances there is now an opportunity to recover attorney fees from the district if a charter school is wrongfully terminated.
Please give us a call, we work with charter schools statewide, including Pensacola, Tallahassee, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Ocala, Lakeland, Orlando, Osceola, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Ft. Myers, Naples, Miami, West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, etc.