The Dixon Decision

The proposed amendment to A.A. Dixon Charter School of Excellence’s contract with the Escambia County School District is bittersweet. While potentially sparing the charter of closure this month, the amendment throws the institution into a do-or-die dance with the state of Florida.

“It’s really not in our hands,” Superintendent Malcolm Thomas told the full gallery at last night’s school board meeting.

The existing deal between the Escambia school district and the struggling charter stipulates that the school will be shut down if it receives a second F grade on the FCAT. Thomas explained to the crowd that the district desired to amend Dixon’s contract in order to allow the charter to continue—due to noticeable student achievement and the fact the charter has cleaned up its finances—but that there had been an 11th-hour realization that state law prevented such action.

“During the process of the afternoon,” Thomas said, “I became aware that the Florida Statute does not allow me to do what I was trying to do.”

Throughout the day Tuesday, the school district posted a number of draft amendments for consideration. Though earlier drafts provided Dixon an out and another year to prove itself, the final draft—which some board members apparently had not yet seen—placed the charter at the state’s feet.

The superintendent cited H.B. 7127. The state law requires charter schools that have earned two consecutive F grades to be shuttered, unless they meet one of three criteria. The charter may stay open if it was established in order to turnaround an existing public school, or if it serves students who are zoned for a poorly performing public school, or lastly, if the charter can convince the state of Florida to grant it a waiver.

Thomas said the first two options do not apply to Dixon, but that the third might. He suggested amending the charter’s contract in order to allow the school to appeal to the state.

“I can’t tell you I like this law—it’s tough,” Thomas told the board and audience. “I could not bring you a proposal that was not legal with the Florida Statute.”

Following a school board workshop last week, there was some appetite to change the contract with Dixon. While the FCAT scores are not yet known, board members recognized the charter’s improved finances and its students’ learning gains.

Board members Linda Moultrie and Patty Hightower appeared ready to offer Dixon an out, while their cohorts remained fairly skeptical of that prospect. While multiple amendment drafts were explored—with one draft appearing on line in the district’s agenda packet—the superintendent said that it was eventually realized that the state law negated those efforts.

“This isn’t about me or you,” Thomas told the crowd last night.

If Dixon accepts the district’s proposed amendment, it dodges a possible June 30 bullet, but then must build an extensive case to take to Tallahassee. If state education officials deny Dixon’s plea, then the charter must close immediately.

“If they deny their waiver then it is terminated at that point,” Thomas explained. “You don’t finish anything. You just wrap it up.”

Once FCAT scores are released—probably mid-July—Dixon has 30 days to appeal to the state. The charter would not find out what the state has decided until well into the fall semester.

“We’re probably talking September,” the superintendent said. “October is more realistic.”

Members of the public—of which there were many in attendance—expressed both thankfulness and hesitation at the proposed amendment. While seemingly relieved that the June 30 date might be pulled off the table, people also seemed skeptical of the state option.

Rev. Lutimothy May, who heads up Dixon’s board of directors, told the school board he would need to have the charter’s attorney look over the proposed amendment.

“I think it would just be prudent,” May said.

May, nor anyone else with the charter, had reviewed the proposed amendment. The final proposal was not yet arrived at until hours before the meeting.

Thomas told May that the charter needed to act quickly. If the proposed contract change was not agreed to by both parties by June 30, the charter’s fate rested in the current contract and the FCAT.

“Because we all know the current contract has a sudden death clause,” he said. “When grades are released it is over.”

The superintendent encouraged Dixon to accept the amendment. He noted that the charter was playing chicken with the calendar.

“So, time is very much of the essence here—it does need to move quickly,” he said. “Because if Tallahassee suddenly gets the speed on and has the grade posted we could run out of time.”

While Dixon officials have yet to approve the amendment to the contract, the school board voted unanimously to approve it. Jeff Bergosh, who previously said he preferred to stay with the original contract, said the charter’s educational improvements sold him on the amendment.

“I must admit, I did not look at the learning gains until yesterday in the evening,” Bergosh said, adding that he was willing to “take a leap of faith” and forgo the possible June 30 closure.

One example of learning gains was relayed last night by parent Kelly Brown. She told the board how her child was told they needed to be held back; the mother choked up when explaining how a teacher had told her the student would not pass the FCAT.

“This was my child’s first year in the public school system,” Brown recalled.

The mother said she decided to move her child to Dixon in hopes the charter could better reach the student. Since then, the child has passed the FCAT and been a fixture on the A/B Honor Roll.

“The teachers at A.A. Dixon helped to restore her confidence,” Brown told the board.