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FGC Charter School: Two Years In the Making, Still In the Starting Blocks, Another Columbia County Mess

Florida Gateway College President Larry Barrett
YouTube capture | Columbia County Observer graphic

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Florida Gateway College (FGC), the community college of Baker, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, and Union counties, has been talking about forming a charter school since February 2022. This past Thursday's FCG Board meeting showed that not only has the College been keeping the public out of the loop, but Board members were also hazy about what the College was up to.

The Board Minutes Tell the Story – Or Do They?
Skip the Background & Cut to the Chase

On February 10, 2022, the FGC board agreed in Dixie County to have a workshop after its next regular meeting at the College Campus on March 10, 2022, to discuss charter schools. (Board minutes)

At the March 10, 2022, FGC workshop, Dr. Barrett gave a PowerPoint presentation about charter schools. Board members made suggestions. (Board minutes)

At the June 2022 Board meeting, Dr. Barrett mentioned at the end of his report that Columbia County public school Superintendent Lex Carswell is interested in partnering with the College to have a charter school. “There will be further discussion in the near future.” (Board minutes)

On August 11, 2022, Dr. Barrett mentioned at the end of his report that “he will be speaking with Columbia County School District at a future date regarding a possible charter school.” (Board minutes) This was the final time in 2022 that Dr. Barrett was recorded in the FGC minutes mentioning the FGC charter school. There was not a lot of information for anyone to go by.

The next time anything showed up in the minutes regarding the charter school was one year later, on August 10, 2023. At the FGC Board meeting, Dr. Barrett reported, "Our charter school is moving along quickly." Dr. Barrett advised the Board, "The concept of our charter school has been created that 9th and 10th grade will be a traditional high school and 11th and 12th grade would be dual enrollment for our technical programs and a few of our regular traditional programs." (Board minutes). The Board had no questions.

The September 2023 minutes explain, "We are working heavily on our Charter School," followed by November, which reported that the "consultant for the Charter School was unable to make it."

March 10, 2022
Backfill – What FGC Left Out of the Minutes

FGC President Larry Barrett
President Barrett makes a point during the March 10, 2022 meeting.

March 10, 2022, the FGC workshop that got the charter school ball rolling.

Dr. Barrett told the Board, "What I am basically looking for from the Board tonight is -- I don't think a formal resolution -- we can't do that during a workshop -- what I am looking for is should we pursue either one of these ideas [one idea was the charter school]. I'm not looking for a commitment from the Board or anything today. I'm just looking to see -- I'm getting a pulse from you -- your thought process.”

Dr. Barrett explained that the Florida legislature in 2021 passed a law that colleges and universities can either become sponsors or operators of charter schools. Since then, the Florida legislature has enabled a college or university to sponsor and operate a charter school.

Dr. Barrett said he had heard from Chancellor Hebda. The state is interested in an FGC regional charter school.

Dr. Barrett said, “My recommendation to you would be to consider us to explore it. Not to say that we should do it… “Financially, it would be beneficial to us… we would receive between $6,000and $8,000 per student.”

Board member Lindsey Lander: “I’m very skeptical about it, but I'm just one person on the board.”

Board member Suzanne Norris: “I want to go back to your recommendation. Your recommendation was to do some fact-finding and to explain the pros and cons. I don't feel equipped to make any kind of recommendation without facts in front of me. I think part of a fact-finding is to do a survey to see if it would be successful… the fiscal model to me is something we really have to be concerned about…. We have to make sure it's sustainable.”

Board member Miguel Tepedino: “I think just standing on the sidelines is dangerous.” Dr. Tepedino wanted to know “stats.”

Board member Renae Allen: “You’re going to be pulling (students) just from Columbia County. That's the reality.”

Dr. Barrett: “And the reality is the state told me -- one of the conversations was -- you should just say you're going to do a charter school in Columbia County, and free choice, any of the other surrounding counties can send their kids anyway. I wanted to be transparent with you about that.”

Ms. Norris added, “My request of you is giving us the data.”

Dr. Tepedino was worried about offending the school district and thought the College should "put a technical spin" on the charter school idea.

The discussion concluded with Dr. Barrett telling the Board he would get back to them.

One Year Later - Revelations:
Dr. Barrett Gets Back to the Board With a Substantive Update

On March 9, 2023, in Gilchrist County, Dr. Barrett gave the FGC Board a charter school update:

I wanna inform you about the charter school. So, Superintendent Carswell and I've had two or three meetings, just the two of us, to talk about the charter school.

About two weeks ago, a team [FGC Admin.] of Tony, Casey, Paula, anybody and Matt, Matt Peace, met with some administrators from the school district to talk about the charter school. We were in agreement to move forward with the charter school. And we were in favor of, they, they were unanimous that the charter school should be at our campus, at the college campus.

Um, would be a charter school that would be designed primarily for Columbia County. And if there were any additional spots available, that would be open for our four-county service area.

We envision it as probably a school of about 350 students. That would be nine through 12. Where eventually, uh, when we would do it differently, I don't wanna get into too many details, but it would be – if the students would earn a, a high school diploma from whatever the name of the charter school would be. And we would also receive at the same time an associate's degree and a credential. And we see this as a STEM-based academy.

I'm asking today we would if we have not signed contracts or anything. I would never do that. But, we have been in consultation with a couple of consultants, and there is one in mind that has opened five of these charter schools at other state colleges and community colleges over the last two or three years. The cost is not cheap; I'm gonna tell you it's about $85,000 for (unintelligible). But we would have our charter application if I bring that contract to you next month. We would have our charter application approved for December of 2023.

And that, what the timing is so important with that is then the funding follows that in the next legislative session. So, I just wanted to get a pulse. We wanted to move forward. I know it was, um, there was some concern in the past, but I think the biggest concern was working with our school districts now. So, I was just looking for, I don't need a motion. There was no ask for a motion, but I just wanted to bring that forward to you if you wanted to discuss that now.

A contract for a charter school consultant has not been presented to the Board for approval.

Thursday Evening at FGC Hdq: It Wasn’t Pretty
FGC Charter School: More Questions Than Answers

Dr. Christy Noe, Ph.D., consultant
Dr. Christy Noe, Ph.D., consultant, addresses the FGC Board

Thirty-five minutes into the FGC January 11, 2024 Board meeting, the agenda rolled around to the President's report. The President's report was a bit more than a charter school update. It introduced the charter school consultant Christy Noe, the President and CEO of Collaborative Educational Network, Inc.

Dr. Barrett told the Board that Dr. Noe was the first charter school principal in 1997 and that she had consulted on 72 applications for Florida's charter schools and had 72 approvals.

Dr. Noe told the Board, "I am thrilled to be here tonight." Dr. Noe complemented President Barrett's cabinet, calling them "fantastic."

The Board and everyone else then learned, “They've been on a team working with me. So I am really excited about what we have in store.”

Dr. Noe said, "Colleges were approved not too long ago to be authorizers for charter schools. I think we are taking a different route; we are going to have the school district be the Authorizer."

Community college charter schools are statutorily authorized when a public community college, in cooperation with the school board or boards within the College's service area, develops a charter school that offers secondary education and allows students to obtain an associate's degree upon graduation from high school. DOE

Dr. Noe continued, "We've started working, and we've been working with your team on the vision and mission for this charter high school."

There has been no public outreach or input whatsoever regarding the vision and mission of the FGC charter high school. Not in Columbia County; not in any other of the Counties served by the College.

Dr. Noe said, "We're looking at about 300 students in grades nine through 12. And then we do believe that some of them will be dual enrolled, some of them will be doing industry certifications. So we're not necessarily counting on building a building that's going to house all of the students all the time, since we're going to utilize a lot of the facilities here on campus. And the first year, we're looking at just starting with ninth grade and then adding a year, a grade each year."

Dr. Noe said the completed charter school application should be completed in March, at which time it would be submitted to the Columbia County school district.

Dr. Noe said, "I believe the first policy we're going to work on is the enrollment policy. I'll present that to you, and you guys would approve those policies. I've also recommended we hire counsel for the school. I know you have counsel on the Board, but I want to make sure that we've got appropriate charter school counsel for the school specifically."

Board member Lindsey Lander asked, "So you're saying that this Board will act as sort of a de facto school board? Yes, sir. Yeah, all the things that go on in a school will now come before this Board."

Dr. Noe answered, “Correct.”

Ms. Norris: “You said the school system can be the sponsor or that some colleges are the sponsor? So what is the advantage and the disadvantage of picking one over the other? And how does that change the governance?”

Dr. Noe’s response did not answer the question.

Chairman Crawford said, "I don't want to pick the pepper out of the soup. But I do want to make sure that I have a good grasp. So we're going to be fiduciary and will be responsible for ultimately personnel matters like this. We're probably picking the pep rallies to suit matters like but very serious matters, like the submission of the FSAT to the Department of Education and District best practices for safety and security. We will be responsible for that.”

Dr. Noe said she would work “right next to you.”

Florida Representative Chuck Brannan, an FGC Board member, asked, "Maybe I missed the meeting. But when did we make that determination that this Board was not going to be the chartering entity?”

Dr. Barrett: “I believe that the motion was that we'd be an operator.”

The Board never made this motion.

Dr. Barrett said he was 99% sure the Board approved the district to be the Authorizer.

Rep. Brannan said, so we already approved this?

Ms. Norris said, “Maybe I missed it. I thought we authorized exploring it.”

Rep. Brannan asked, “Where are we?”

Dr. Noe said, "So, in our enrollment policy, we would probably establish a preference for Columbia County."

Board member Renae Allen makes a point as a not so happy Representative Brannan listens.
Board member Renae Allen makes a point as a not so happy Representative Brannan listens.

Representative Brannan: "I'm not being argumentative, but my point is, this Board serves six counties. How do we as a board who serves six [five] counties – that doesn't have a good look to me to say, well, we serve six counties, Union, Baker, whoever, Gilchrist, but we're gonna give a preference to a particular candidate."

Dr. Noe responded, “Well, that would actually -- so that's why we're gonna hire an attorney.”

Rep. Brannan said, “That’s a question for this board."

Dr. Noe dug in, “And I think, you know, I think the initial response to that, I'm not saying that's correct, but I think the idea is the school itself is located in Columbia County."

Board member James Surrency, Superintendent of Gilchrist County School District, weighed in, "I haven't heard much discussion… I'd really like to hear a lot more about that, because that's, that hadn't been touched on. I don't remember hearing anything about that."

Rep. Brannan: “Here's where I'm starting to get a little heartburn. We get state money, serve those counties right there on that wall [the counties served by FGC]. And we will keep you in state money. And we use state money to do a lot of things. We need state money… Is there a rub there that we're not serving those counties?”

Chairman Crawford said he wants to look into the matter. "I think we need to have factual information brought back to us to see what limits we have on us as a board," he said.

Once again, Dr. Noe said, "I'm gonna get you a good attorney," adding, "I think you know the relationship with Columbia County to be a positive one."

Dr. Barrett explained that during the past six months, Columbia County schools were with them every step of the way. Dr. Barrett said, "We need to take a pause in this process."

Dr. Tepedino said he thought they discussed buses.

Ms. Norris said she was a little fuzzy, but she knew "we did a resolution for Columbia County." Ms. Norris said, "I was here for everything," and suggested some board members would have to be “re-educated to be brought up to speed.”

Ms. Norris added, “I have total confidence in my comrades."

Dr. Barrett pointed out that the College has asked for money from the legislature to build the charter school.

Dr. Noe said yes and would "continue writing the application" with side notes. Dr. Noe added she “didn't want to miss the timeline.”

Charter School Teachers

According to Dr. Barrett, the College will have to hire 12 new teachers for the charter school. Board member and Superintendent Surrency has said what everyone knows, it is almost impossible to hire qualified teachers.

Florida Gateway College has never discussed where it will find qualified teachers for its charter school.


Initially, FGC was contemplating building a healthcare charter school to enhance its nursing and medical-related subject areas.

If the college had stuck with that, it would not be in the boat it is in now.

Folk would be lining up from all over to get into the “FGC Healthcare Academy,” instead of looking at another Columbia County mess.

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