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Negotiations are under way between Toledo Public Schools and two charter schools it sponsors in an effort to end tensions and avert the schools' defection to the Ohio Department of Education.
Phoenix and Polly Fox academies, both founded in 2003 and headquartered at 1505 Jefferson Ave., submitted applications last month to be sponsored by the state, a move made available in last year's budget bill.
The schools cited a "long-standing conflict" between the schools and TPS, centering on a dispute over who should employ the schools' shared principal.
The relationship between TPS and the schools deteriorated so much that school district attorneys threatened in September that the board of education could terminate the sponsor agreement.
Here's the dispute:
TPS said the academies must use a TPS administrator, according to the parties' contract.
The academies said state law requires that they hire a principal independent from TPS.
But representatives from all sides said detente is desired and negotiations seem productive.
"It kind of came to a head recently, and each school decided to explore other possibilities," said Craig Cotner, principal of Polly Fox and Phoenix. "But in this process, we have reopened some negotiations with TPS, and hopefully we will come to some positive resolution."
At risk for TPS is not just the relationship with the schools but also a lot of money.
Phoenix Academy is a dropout recovery school with a mostly online curriculum and an average enrollment of about 700. Polly Fox focuses on pregnant and parenting teens and enrolls about 140 annually.
Both schools have independent governing boards and are led by Mr. Cotner, a former TPS administrator. As a sponsor, TPS provides oversight for the schools; in return, the schools pay the district about $600,000 and reimburse it for teachers and other staff.
By agreement, all employees of the schools are members of TPS bargaining units. For example, all teachers must be members of the Toledo Federation of Teachers. But that agreement caused the schools to run afoul of state law requiring that a charter school principal be employed directly by its board and be independent of its sponsor.
In effect, language in both the agreement between the schools and TPS, as well as the collective bargaining agreement for the administrative union, the Toledo Association of Administrative Personnel, was in conflict with state statute. Ohio education officials advised academy officials that state law requires the independence of principals/superintendents at charter schools, so the academies ditched their TAAP-member principal, Ray Russell, in July, 2010, and hired Mr. Cotner, who is not a TAAP member.
But that violated the TAAP collective bargaining agreement. The union grieved and won, with the arbitrator ruling that the removed principal should be reinstated. Unwilling to violate state law, the academies refused. So TPS demanded mediation with the academies and threatened to sue after the schools did not acquiesce.
"I will recommend that the committee conduct an executive session to discuss imminent litigation," TPS attorney Keith Wilkowski wrote in September, "which is what it will apparently take in order to have Polly Fox and Phoenix Academies honor their contracts with Toledo Public Schools."
Communications between the parties that are included in the academies' applications show a strained relationship. After Mr. Wilkowski's letter, the academies' lawyer expressed surprise "at the level of hostility TPS continues to direct at Phoenix and Polly Fox over the independent principal-superintendent position."
Just months later, the parties say relations are improved.
"Our hope is to put an agreement together that will be lasting, and I think that's their hope too," Jim Gault, TPS chief academic officer, said.
"I think there has been a commitment from us and them to improve the relationship."
No one involved would say what has been discussed as a possible resolution to the conflict. Don Yates, president of TAAP, said he hopes a compromise over the competing language can be found.
Meanwhile, the possibility of the academies leaving TPS for the state education department remains open. Mark Michael, director of the office of school sponsorship at the state department, acknowledged the ongoing negotiations and said he hopes to have a decision next week over the applications.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6086.