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News Story
Updated: 04/07/2013 08:00:02AM

Pride and prejudice may cost school taxpayers money

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The Polk County School District and the Lake Wales Charter School system need to sit in a room and work out their differences before the county school district spends millions of dollars of money in Lake Wales that the taxpayers don’t have just to make a point.

Just last week, interim Polk County School Superintendent John Stewart held a meeting with school board members to talk about possible severe cutbacks in personnel and school hours to help make up for an $18 million shortfall in the school board budget and told the school board members that there were not easy solutions and that something had to be done to make up for the shortfall.

Inexplicably, at the same meeting, Stewart told the board that next week he and staff would unveil a plan to make a new high school and arts program in Lake Wales by making McLaughlin Middle School a combination middle school and high school.

So, let’s get this straight. We are millions of dollars in the hole but we think there is a pressing need to spend millions of dollars on a new high school in Lake Wales?

If that sounds like math that doesn’t add up, then congratulations, you don’t need to take this year’s FCAT.

There is no need for a new high school in Lake Wales. There has been no substantial population growth in the city to justify such a move.

What is pushing the move is pride and prejudice.

A little background is order. A few years ago the Lake Wales community banded together and raised enough money and community support to begin an experiment that is unique in modern Florida educational history. The community started its own community-based school system by taking advantage of the law that states that if teachers and parents vote to convert their public schools into charter schools, they can do so. Parents and teachers did just that at every public school in Lake Wales except for Spook Hill Elementary, McLaughlin Middle School and Roosevelt Academy.

What Lake Wales has now is essentially a town-run school system. Members of the community run the charter system’s board of trustees and the community takes great pride that it has improved the schools in the time it has been operating them.

Sounds like everyone should be happy, right?

Well, not exactly. Not long ago, the charter system announced it would like to take another look at asking McLaughlin parents and students to convert to the charter system. The idea was that since Lake Wales High School was the destination for both McLaughlin and Bok Academy (the charter middle school) students, then perhaps students at both middle schools should be taught the same way. The school district retaliated and told students at the county-operated middle school that they could not attend the annual orientation at Lake Wales High. McLaughlin officials also appeared to be steering students away from signing up for Lake Wales High School, instead steering them toward Frostproof High and other county-operated high schools.

The Lake Wales Charter School system may have upset the administrators at the public school system who seem to have a slight inclination toward giving the charter school system a hard time. The Lake Wales Charter system is very different than most charter schools. It is not a single school charter school. The system is not a for-profit enterprise. It is a genuine community-based public school system that operates much like the Polk County School system, only it deals mainly with a single community.

It has been successful in turning mediocre schools into better places of learning.

We understand that the public school system has a predisposition to not like charter schools. It is a threatening concept for a bureaucracy to lose control of so many schools. But a school system so close to its community should be nurtured by the county school district, not undermined.

Taxpayers throughout all of Polk County should be concerned about what is going on in Lake Wales right now. The Polk County district is saying it is going to spend money it can ill afford right now for some reason other than there is a need for new high school in Lake Wales.

Is the disagreement between the two systems worth laying off hard-working teachers and allowing student education to suffer because tax dollars were used to further the feud?

Many charter school leaders have told us that Stewart is a fair-minded and competent leader. He is respected throughout the county and within the Lake Wales charter school system. He is doing a good job filling in until the board picks a new superintendent.

But this might be one decision that he puts off until a permanent district leader is named, especially since the idea commits the district to spending money it says it does not have right now.

The Polk County School Board and the Lake Wales Charter School Board of Trustees might consider holding a joint workshop to hash out their differences. If the two boards did that every so often, then perhaps there would be more talking, planning and cooperation.




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