The charter for a newly opened aviation school in Kissimmee was revoked Tuesday night amid allegations of falsifying documents and unsafe learning conditions. The decision comes 11 days after a massive faculty walk-off left a single certified teacher at the school.
A failed take-off
Florida Aviation Academy (FAA) opened on Kissimmee Gateway Airport property in August, and was touted as an innovative high school where students could gain hands-on aerospace experience from industry leaders.
It was supposed to be the first public high school in Florida housed on airport property, and was even championed by local officials, including the mayor of Kissimmee.
But on Tuesday night, a special last-minute item added to the school board agenda called to terminate FAA’s charter immediately.
“I’m not convinced that the health, safety and welfare of students is in place,” said Osceola County Superintendent Debra Pace. “I stand by my termination recommendation.”
Pace and School District Attorney Frank Kruppenbacher detailed numerous issues uncovered during an investigation and interviews prompted by multiple employee resignations Dec. 7.
A laundry list of accusations
According to a letter issued Dec. 17, 24 factors created an “immediate and serious danger to the health, safety and welfare of the school students.”
- Falsification of academic related documents, including submitting grades for courses that did not exist.
- Threatening teachers with termination if they did not falsify academic records.
- Questionable payments to vendors including Massage Envy and Marshall’s.
- Not providing a school resource officer on campus during all school hours.
- Failure to have teachers covering classes after seven instructors resigned Dec. 7.
- Failure to have certified teachers in place after the school district provided substitute teachers for four days following the walk-off.
- Classroom conditions that failed to comply with state law, including in an airplane hanger without air conditioning or heat.
- Failure to provide textbooks for at least two courses more than a month after school began.
- Attempts to double charge the state in order to get more funding.
- A large student-to-adult ratio. According to Pace, only two adults were present (not including parent volunteers) to oversee 111 students on a recent visit.
Parents, students defend FAA
Despite stiff allegations, parents and students defended FAA at the meeting, calling the accusations “a bump in the road.”
Larry Payne, a retired New York law enforcement officer and long-time parent volunteer, said the school can improve if it’s given a chance.
“I don’t think we should quickly, haistely make decisions,” he said, “and instead allow an opportunity for this school to become a reality…We have parents there every day wanting to help.”
But parent and student dedication wasn’t enough. The school board ultimately voted 4-1 to terminate the school’s charter.
Starting Wednesday, school district certified teachers were put in place to administer semester exams.
Florida Aviation Academy’s board can now appeal to get their charter back, and a judge must issue a decision 60 days after a claim is filed.
The 111 FAA students will automatically be absorbed into Osceola High School when classes resume Jan. 8.
School district staff will work with parents and students to discuss all other school choice options, according to District Public Information Officer Dana Schafer.
Revoking a school’s charter is rare, Schafer said.
In her 25-year career with Osceola Schools, Schafer could only recall three schools losing their charter from the district.
Florida Aviation Academy was promoted as a state-of-the-art, innovative 9-12 campus before it opened this August. Local city leaders, including Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez, were instrumental in bringing FAA to Gateway Airport.
“The reason I continued to push for this is I was tired of seeing kids dropping out of high school,” Alvarez said at a Kissimmee Commission meeting April 17. “When something good is in front of you, you can’t leave it alone because you know it’s going to help those kids.”
Over 100 students set to relocate to Osceola High School Jan. 8