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State education officials upset over Warrington Middle School charter delays

The Escambia School District has been given one year to complete a state-approved turnaround plan for Warrington Middle School.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
The Escambia School District has been given one year to complete a state-approved turnaround plan for Warrington Middle School.

Members of the state Board of Education Wednesday expressed their frustration over the lack of progress in Warrington Middle School’s transition to a charter school.

Officials from the Escambia County School District are now under increased pressure to sign a contract before the state Board convenes again next month or begin pursuing the less-preferred option of closing the school.

“I'm trying to contain the level of frustration that I have right now,” said Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, in reference to the district’s inability to close the deal with Charter Schools USA, after more than two years of negotiations.

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“This school has been failing students for more than a decade, and it's inexcusable that we're still having adult problem conversations and not focusing on students.”

Warrington Middle school has been a D or F school since 2012, the only school in the state to score a D for six or more years. And, despite the extra funding and resources available to the school, Senior Chancellor Adam Miller says recent proficiency scores for English/Language Arts and Mathematics show there’s been little improvement.

“As of our second progress monitoring, which is mid-year progress monitoring, Warrington has about 17% of their kids on grade level at that point,” Miller said. “Math 16% as compared to the state, which was a 38 and 34 in English and Math.”

Based on the state Board-approved turnaround plan for Warrington Middle, the school had to improve to a school grade of C or higher at the end of 2021-22 or begin the process of transitioning to a charter school.

The Escambia County School District has been in talks with Charter Schools USA for some time, with stepped up negotiations during the past year. But, still no contract.

In laying out the timeline, Escambia School Superintendent Dr. Tim Smith said they had hoped to receive an official charter application by March 1.

“Our team was waiting for that. It did not arrive,” Smith stated. “We then thought it might arrive in mid-March; it did not.”

RELATED: Warrington Middle School receives a D grade

Smith says Escambia school officials were looking to move forward with a proposal for a K-8 charter school that would hold the current zoning in place, a critical point for the District.

But, he says in recent weeks, the company has presented some critical changes.

“There was also a new concept that was added there, and the idea was deviating from the zoned school for Warrington middle School students in year four. There was a new concept, too, to go from a K-8 to a K-12.”

Additionally, District officials are concerned about possibly being left with the responsibility for building modifications or new building construction costs, if Charter Schools USA doesn’t make the grade and has to close.

“We need to know what's happening with our students,” said School Board Chairman Paul Fetsko. “I need to know for the parents that I represent who elected me, to be able to say, yes, your child is going to be well cared for, well educated. You can expect your child to achieve.”

Senior Chancellor Adam Miller says Warrington Middle School is the only school in the state to score a D for six or more years.
Screenshot from Florida Channel
Senior Chancellor Adam Miller says Warrington Middle School is the only school in the state to score a D for six or more years.

Fetsko acknowledged that no previous charter school contract negotiations he’s been involved with have been as painful as this one, even though a few of them have been forced to close for various reasons. When pressed, he said the possibility of dissolving Warrington Middle’s attendance zone is one of the biggest sticking points.

“We want the school to stay open. The attendance zone, even if it does dissipate, is really important for it to be there,” Fetsko said. “If it goes away, then the whole reason for Charter Schools wanting to come in and take over a 6-8, it will no longer be a 6-8. It will be a K-12 and that changes the whole perspective.”

Additionally, Fetsko said he didn’t want to have to bus the students out of their neighborhoods to new schools up to 20 minutes away and complained that Charter Schools USA had not submitted an application.

“What I don’t hear from either of you is a sense of urgency," said Vice-chair Ryan Petty, after hearing from Fetsko and Smith. “These kids deserve better. This school needs to be fixed.”

He argued that no application from Charter Schools USA was needed since the company was selected by the District. Then urged Escambia officials to work out the details and get a contract signed by the May 1 deadline.

“This board is out of patience with the Escambia County School District. This needs to get done, and it needs to get done immediately.”

In closing the dialogue with District officials, Board of Education Chairman Ben Gibson agreed that getting the contract in place was their only option.

“I believe you'll probably be on the agenda for the May meeting,” Gibson said. “And, hopefully we’ll have some good news to report.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.