LAND O'LAKES — Leaders of Countryside Montessori Charter School have abandoned two controversial proposed enrollment policies that threatened the school's contract renewal bid with the Pasco County School Board.
As a result, the A-rated school is headed for a new agreement that would keep it running for at least 15 more years.
"They have agreed to all of the things that we were negotiating, that we insisted upon," said Nancy Scowcroft, the district's charter school supervisor.
Previously, Countryside Montessori had attempted to get two provisions added into its contract that prompted superintendent Heather Fiorentino to suggest the school was trying to "cherry pick" the best and brightest students while avoiding those with special needs. They were:
• Giving preferential treatment for children with past Montessori experience.
• Deciding whether the school could serve students with special education needs and individualized education plans, without discussing services with district special education experts.
School Board members would not accept a contract with those terms, which members said were discriminatory. State law permits a handful of preferences for charter school admission, including siblings of current students and children of employees — but not the ones sought by Countryside Montessori.
The board gave the charter school a 120-day extension on its existing contract, which had already expired and been extended previously, to allow time for negotiations and mediation on the disagreement.
"We are very excited about reaching an agreement on the two points," Countryside Montessori principal Dennise Ondina said. "We worked diligently and collaboratively with the school district to reach a mutual agreement on the language of their proposed contract, which was revised extensively. We look forward to another 15 years of providing quality education to students in Pasco County."
The school added seventh grade classes this year and plans to expand into eighth grade next year.
It will continue to target Montessori students, she said, but it will not give them special treatment for seats. It also will revise its policies to make clear that the school's application process will take all necessary steps to serve students with special needs or find them the appropriate placement in conjunction with parents and the district, she added.
At the same time, Ondina noted, Countryside Montessori — like all public schools — is not expected to have the wherewithal to meet the needs of every single student. It might have to refer some children to other settings that have all the services they require, she said.
"Ideally we would like more charter schools to be included in Pasco County that serve more of a variety of students," Ondina said. "That way we could work together in serving all the students."
Fiorentino said she did not regret recommending that the board hold off on extending the charter school's contract until these issues could be resolved.
"I don't have a problem with a good charter school," she said. "But they have to follow the rules."
Board member Steve Luikart, who at the time of the extension said the sides needed to reach agreement or move on, said he wanted to take a close look at the settlement language before taking a position on it.
"I want to make sure we have the language to make sure they function the way they're supposed to function," Luikart said.
Ondina said her school was glad to have these issues in the past, and was looking ahead to a good relationship with the district.
"Going forward, we have a superintendent that is a firm believer in collaboration and in district and charter schools working together," she said, noting that superintendent-elect Kurt Browning has reached out to meet with students, teachers and staff there. "We are so excited to have this new, refreshing energy in the district."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.