TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Pointing to choices made by parents, a state judge has ruled that a Southeast Florida school district cannot require a charter school to provide bus transportation to students.
Administrative Law Judge Darren Schwartz, in a 45-page order issued last week, sided with Renaissance Charter School at Tradition in a long-running dispute with the St. Lucie County School Board.
The case focused, in part, on a state law that effectively requires districts to provide bus transportation to students who live two miles or more from school. Also, St. Lucie County school officials argued that the charter school violated a contract by not providing transportation to students.
But Schwartz pointed to a state charter-school law that gives more leeway on transportation issues.
"(To) conclude that Renaissance Charter School at Tradition is required by the charter school statute to provide regular school bus transportation to all students residing more than two miles from the charter school would violate one of the fundamental principles of the charter school statute, which is to provide charter schools greater flexibility,'' Schwartz wrote. "The Legislature specifically recognized that charter schools should have greater flexibility than traditional public schools. Parents choose to send their children to charter schools, knowing full-well that they may reside more than two miles from the charter school, and that their traditional public school may be located much closer to their residence than the charter school."
Charter schools are public schools, though they are often run by private management companies. As part of a school-choice movement heavily backed by state Republican leaders, charter schools do not have to operate under all of the same requirements as more-traditional public schools.
The St. Lucie County School Board approved a contract in 2013 for Renaissance Charter School at Tradition. But later that year, the school board sent a notice alleging that the charter school was not complying with contract requirements for student transportation, according to documents filed in the case.
The charter school last year filed a petition at the state Division of Administrative Hearings to resolve the dispute. In part, the petition said that since its "inception, (the school) has had more students enrolled than it projected and the charter school currently has a waiting list of students hoping to matriculate there despite the fact that it does not offer regular busing to its students absent exceptional circumstances required by law (as is the case, upon information and belief, with most charter schools in Florida)."
But in response, the school board argued that a lack of transportation could prevent some students from attending the charter school.
"Tradition's refusal to provide school bus transportation is a … 'barrier to equal access for all students' by excluding all students who cannot provide their own transportation,'' the school board argued, quoting part of state law. "As a result, Tradition has breached the charter contract and has violated Florida statutes."
Schwartz's order alluded to student demand for the school. The order said the school opened for the 2013-14 academic year as a kindergarten- through sixth-grade school with 695 students. It grew to 890 students as it opened for the 2014-15 academic year, serving students in kindergarten through seventh grade.
"Parents of students enrolled at Renaissance Charter School at Tradition recognize that the decision to enroll their children at Renaissance Charter School at Tradition is a personal choice and not a privilege,'' the order said.
The News Service of Florida's Jim Saunders contributed to this report.
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