By Howard Altman
TAMPA - A Florida-based charter school company has applied to open a kindergarten-through-eighth grade charter school on MacDill Air Force Base that would accommodate nearly 900 students.
If approved, the school would be the first charter school at MacDill and only the ninth in the country on a military base.
The Florida Charter Educational Foundation Board submitted the application Thursday to the Hillsborough County School District. The school would be called the MacDill Charter Academy, according to the board's application.
The proposed school "is an innovative partnership with AMC East Communities, The Florida Charter Educational Foundation, Charter Schools USA and MacDill Education Advisory Council," according to Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Charter Schools USA. She said the school would be governed by the Florida Charter Educational Foundation and have a local advisory council made up of active and non-active MacDill Air Force Base members.
The school ultimately would be able to accommodate 875 students, according to Reynolds. The school would be open to the public, but preference would be given to active military families.
If approved by the School Board, the school could open in fall 2014, Reynolds said.
Tinker Elementary School, a kindergarten-through-fifth grade school already on the base, probably would not be affected, according to Steve Hegarty, spokesman for the Hillsborough County School District.
"Tinker would remain open," said Hegarty. "We have 40-something elementary schools. We never closed a school because of a charter school, and I do not see a problem now."
Tinker has about 500 students, according to Hegarty.
"Tinker Elementary is already at 93 percent capacity," according to the application. "In order to avoid overcrowding at Tinker (which is already occurring), MacDill Charter Academy will serve elementary grades to offer a choice to parents and alleviate the demand on Tinker.''
The board is projecting that the sixth-, seventh- and eight-grade classes - which don't exist at Tinker - will have 150 students each, nearly twice as many as any other grade at the proposed charter school and more than twice as many as most, according to the application.
Charter Schools USA will manage the day-to-day operations of the school, Reynolds said. AMC East Communities, MacDill's housing developer, is providing the land on which the school will be built, she said.
Charter Schools USA already has three charter schools in Hillsborough County. Henderson Hammock Charter School, Winthrop Charter School and Woodmont Charter School. According to Florida Department of Education records, they have mixed grades, with Winthrop receiving a B grade, Henderson Hammock a C grade and Woodmont an F grade.
Running any school on a military base presents challenges. A recent General Accounting Office report said that among other issues, base security can be problematic for parents trying to get to the school.
All eight of the charter schools now on military bases are behind base security gates, according to the GAO report, "requiring civilians to complete a background check and show a pass. Several school officials reported difficulties conducting school activities such as open houses and sporting events because each base had a limit on the number of security passes for civilians."
Like other charter schools, "military base charter school officials also reported obstacles to obtaining facilities, such as financing," according to the report.
MacDill officials on Thursday did not address questions about base access.
There were other concerns raised in the GAO report.
Charter schools on military bases "also encountered unique challenges, such as complex military facility and land leases," according to the report. "Several school and military base officials said that having guidance and more information sharing could help with startup and operational challenges charter schools on military bases face. However, there is currently little guidance or information sharing about military base charter schools."
The GAO recommended greater guidance from the departments of Defense and Education on charter school startup and operational issues on military bases.
Ken Haiko, chairman of the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, said a charter school would address some of the hurdles military families face.
"Military families have very unique circumstances that often make it difficult for students in off-base schools," said Haiko. "Because of the highly transient nature of the military, those living off base can feel disconnected to their neighbors. We are looking forward to providing a centralized school on base which allows families to bond and students to better assimilate into classrooms. Students will have an instant support group of their peers who understand exactly what they are going through."
The GAO cited the transient nature of military families as the reason for conducting its report.
"Family concerns about education affect readiness and retention of military personnel," said the report, citing the Department of Defense, which recommended in 2008 that military families in areas with poorly performing public schools be offered charter school options."
Carole Moore Adamczyk, who served as the Family Readiness Coordinator for U.S. Special Operations Command Central at MacDill between 2008 and 2011, said a charter school at the base would be a positive for military families.
"They go through enough changes, every two years," said Adamczyk, whose job was helping families cope with military life. "It's so hard for them to go from school to school. This way it gives a little more stability here. The kids don't have to change schools when they finish the fifth grade,"
Though Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently called for military headquarters to trim jobs, which could result in the loss of about 1,200 jobs at MacDill over a five-year period beginning in October, 2014, Adamczyk said the need for another school won't change.
"There are a lot of families with kids coming here," she said.
Charter school applicants have "several hoops to go through" before they are approved, said Hegarty, the Hillsborough County School District spokesman. "Charter Schools USA is a large organizations. They know how to do good applications."
Air Force 2nd Lt. Patrick Gargan, a spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the base host unit, said that "while MacDill Air Force Base has no official role in the establishment of a charter school on base, we are interested in anything that may potentially benefit local and military children."