The Sarasota Military Academy Honor Guard’s presentation of colors at the opening of Tuesday’s Sarasota School Board meeting drew applause from the nearly 100 people in attendance, showing the kind of community support that helped save the military school’s bid to add a middle school.
In a highly charged Tuesday meeting, the School Board voted 3-2 to allow the Sarasota Military Academy (SMA) to open a middle school, drawing audible sighs from the academy’s contingent as the decision was announced.
Initially, SMA’s middle school expansion looked unlikely. The School Board voted on three charter-school applications Tuesday, denying the first two and then taking SMA to task in a series of public comments excoriating the school for what board members called a sloppy and disappointing application.
School Board members Carol Todd and Caroline Zucker voted to deny SMA’s proposal, citing concerns about fairness.
“I support the military academy, but it’s an untenable position for this board to be in,” Todd explained. “I’m not going to support it because it wouldn’t be respectful to the previous applicants I’ve denied.”
“I can’t deny the other applications and approve this one,” Zucker added. “It’s just not fair.”
In the end, however, SMA’s reputation made the difference.
School Board members Frank Kovach and Shirley Brown indicated they would vote to approve the military school’s expansion, leaving the deciding vote to School Board member Jane Goodwin.
Goodwin initially echoed concerns expressed by Todd and Zucker about fairness and a potentially compromised appeals process.
“You’ve put the board in an untenable position,” Goodwin said, just prior to announcing she would vote in favor of the expansion. “I hope I’m doing the right thing.”
SMA Headmaster Daniel Kennedy was visibly relieved after the meeting, shaking the hands of well-wishers and congratulating the members of his staff with high-fives, hugs and back slaps.
“I feel great,” Kennedy said. “After that vote we are determined to work as hard as we can to prove to the board that they made the right decision.”
Goodwin later explained to SMA parents what ultimately swayed her decision to cast the approving final vote.
“I’m looking for something we don’t already do,” Goodwin said. “I’m looking for unique.”
SMA parents were ecstatic.
“Having a middle school will make a huge difference,” said Barbara Robinette, whose son is a sophomore at SMA. “By starting earlier, it will help instill the values we want in our children before they even get to high school.”
“There are no words to describe how important the middle school will be,” said Jill Wolfe, president of SMA’s Parent Teacher Cadet Council (PTCC). Wolfe said her son, a junior at SMA, plans on applying to West Point and the U.S. Air Force Academy, and is adamant that his young brother, who is still a toddler, attend SMA’s new middle school.
“For a 16-year-old to care so much about where his little brother will go to school, that tells you something,” Wolfe said.
The SMA prep school’s campus, which has a projected $4.7 million price tag, will comprise about five new buildings as well as soccer and lacrosse fields and be located on a 12-acre site off Fruitville Road, east of Interstate 75.
All three charter-school proposals drew heated comments from board members, with the harshest critiques reserved for the Sarasota Academy of Math and Science before its application was struck down in a 5-0 vote.
School Board members took advantage of the public forum to dress down the Hillsborough County-based charter in a series of prepared remarks, sending a message to charter-school applicants whose governing bodies reside outside the county that Sarasota referendum dollars are not up for grabs, and charter applications will not be considered unless they are backed by community support.
“I have not received one phone call, email or letter from a citizen in this district asking for this school,” Todd said.
“Our referendum dollars would be going to a board that is not local,” Brown said. “I have a major problem with that.”
School Board members were also concerned about protecting the district’s high performance standards.
“I am concerned about approving a charter that could bring down our A-rating,” Todd said, referring to the district being one of only five among Florida’s 67 districts to be awarded a coveted A-rating in 2013.
The School Board was less critical of the application from Horizon’s Unlimited Learning Academy. Despite shortfalls in the charter’s education plan, board members praised the group’s concept and passion before voting 5-0 to deny the application.
“This charter school is not ready to go live, but the concept is good,” Goodwin said. “Shore up your educational plan and come back. We want you to be successful.”
Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]