Hare Krishnas denied charter school

Jacksonville Times-Union/May 17, 1999
By Thomas B. Pfankuch

Alachua -- Tom Allin doesn't have a shaven head, he doesn't wear long robes to work and he doesn't ask people for money at airports.

Make no mistake, Allin, 49, is a practicing member of the Hare Krishna faith. But Allin says he and members of the other 200 Krishna families that live in and around this small town 15 miles north of Gainesville aren't trapped in stereotypical images of a religion that few Americans understand.

And now, Allin and a handful of other Krishnas want to open an 80-student public charter school, one with low student-teacher ratios, mandatory parental involvement and other ideas they believe will help kids learn.

But the proposed school - the Alachua Learning Center - was denied recently by the Alachua County School Board, which Allin and his lawyer claim has been influenced by "religious scare tactics" perpetuated by people who don't understand the Krishna religion.

School Board members said they are worried the school won't be open to non-Krishnas and will be a state-funded replacement for a school now run by the Alachua Krishnas.

Charter school contracts, which must be approved by county school boards, require the schools be non-sectarian. Several groups with religious ties are running charter schools in Florida and many are located inside churches. The contracts mandate the schools not teach religion and provide for monitoring by the School Board to ensure religion is kept out of the curriculum or entrance guidelines.

"We're not trying to pull a fast one here," Allin said recently. "The door mat should be open to anyone, and we should make it open to the public and that's what we intend to do."

School Board member Judy Brashear doubts the school would be open to members of other religions or atheists. Brashear, the most outspoken opponent of the learning center, refused to discuss the board's decision.

But in the board's May 4 meeting, she said, "Whether the door is open, I don't think the welcome mat will be out. This is an attempt to take a private, religious school . . . in a remote location [and] call it open to the public [and] call it non-sectarian."

Dan Coffey, an attorney for the Alachua Learning Center, said the preliminary applicants to attend the charter school consist of 60 percent non-Krishna kids.

Brashear also said the Alachua schools aren't overcrowded and that the district doesn't need more schools. However, the board approved three other charter schools the same night the Alachua Learning Center was rejected 4-1.

Board member Barbara Sharpe, who cast the lone vote in favor of the learning center, said the school's contract appeared to be flawless.

"They have met the requirements of the law," Sharpe said at the meeting. "Whether we like it or not, when a charter school meets those [state] requirements, what are we to do?"

The School Board's May 4 rejection came after it had unanimously approved the center's application in March, and the final contract had been recommended for approval by the superintendent and the board's attorney.

"It's prejudice, and I've seen it before," said Coffey, the Krishnas' attorney. "This board is reacting to the prejudice of the neighbors and others around here that are prejudiced toward these people. If this was a group of Baptists, I guarantee you this [the contract denial] would have never happened."

The Alachua Learning Center and the School Board last week requested a state mediator to help negotiate the contract. If the two sides cannot come to agreement, the contract will go before an administrative law judge who will decide the fate of the school.

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