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Escambia School District given 48 hours to deliver a charter school contract for Warrington Middle

 The Escambia County School District is finalizing preparations for the new school year.
Hunter Morrison
WUWF Public Media
The Escambia County School District is finalizing preparations for the new school year.

Frustrated members of the Florida Board of Education voted Tuesday morning to give the Escambia County School Board just two more days to submit a final contract for operation of a charter school at Warrington Middle School. If Escambia education officials fail to meet the new Thursday morning deadline, the district is subject to lose some state funding.

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“We’re here today to once again discuss Warrington Middle School,” declared Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, referencing the only item on the agenda of the special meeting, which was conducted by conference call.

“We’ve had to have far too many meetings on this subject. It’s regrettable that it’s come to this.”

Tuesday’s meeting comes two weeks after more than a year of negotiations between the Escambia County School District and charter school operator, Charter Schools USA. It’s two weeks after a finalized contract was due on May 1.

RELATED: State education officials upset over Warrington Middle School charter delays

Diaz also pointed out that the meeting follows a 10-year period where Warrington Middle School failed to earn a school grade over a D, despite operating under a state-approved Turnaround Plan that provided extra educational resources and funding.

“In short, the district has been failing these students for far too long and does not seem motivated to do what’s necessary to serve them,” he said.

According to the commissioner, it has now become painfully clear to him that the Escambia School District is "either unable or unwilling to follow the necessary steps to serve the students at Warrington Middle."

He called on the school board to comply with state law and board rules by producing a contract signed by both parties in the next two days or face sanctions.

“I recommend reporting the district’s failure to the Legislature, withhold funding in an amount equal to the salaries of every board member and the superintendent, requiring the district to make daily reports to (state) board through the Department (of Education) under progress of negotiations with the charter school operator,” Diaz stated.

Based on their base salaries, that could mean withholding of over $380,000.

Given an opportunity to respond, Superintendent Dr. Tim Smith defended the time it has taken for the District to comply, reminding the state board that due diligence is required for a long, 30-year contract.

“And, our board has to make sure financially they’re being responsible, we’re all being responsible with that. We have to make sure the zone is held,” he said. “Because, we’re talking about decades here that are going to be impacted.”

As late as Friday, there were still three unsettled contract issues. Smith told the board that agreement has now been reached on a primary sticking point that keeps zoning in place for up to 200 seats each at the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade levels for students from the Warrington community.

The superintendent was asked if he was confident that was enough for the Escambia School District to finalize a contract and come into compliance.

“I very much want this to come to closure, but again, with all due respect, I just can’t speak on behalf of each of our board members,” said Smith, adding that the issue would be added to the agenda of tonight's regular board meeting.

Not satisfied with the responses, Board Member Esther Byrd asked if the Escambia leadership really understood the gravity of the failing to comply with state law, while vice-chair Ryan Petty was critical of the effort that went into getting a charter deal done.

“I find your negotiation to be either incompetent or completely disingenuous,” said Petty. “And I’m just gonna call it out like I see it.”

Superintendent Smith scoffed at the implication of incompetence.

“It is just offensive that our public is listening to this here and you’re telling us that we don’t care about the children at Warrington Middle School. Sir, that is just wrong,” he proclaimed.

School Board Chairman Paul Fetsko wouldn’t fully commit his support, but conceded he was looking forward to tonight’s discussion of the charter contract.

“I will look at it,” said Fetsko. “I believe that if the issue of attendance is resolved, I am very much in favor of having something go through.”

The school board is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. in the J.E. Hall Center.

After voting unanimously on the 48-hour deadline for a final contract and sanctions if one is not presented, State Board Chairman Ben Gibson urged Fetsko and Smith to get the issue settled tonight.

“We’re frustrated for the future of the kids at Warrington Middle School,” said Gibson. “And making their educational futures are secure and they have the best opportunity, like any child in the state, to learn.”

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.