Divided Royal Palm Beach Council Rejects Change To Allow Private School At Tuttle Royale

Home Rule Hero — Vice Mayor Jeff Hmara is honored for his 2024 Home Rule Hero Award from the Florida League of Cities. (L-R) Councilwoman Selena Samios, Councilman Richard Valuntas, Mayor Fred Pinto, Vice Mayor Jeff Hmara and Councilwoman Jan Rodusky. Photo courtesy the Village of Royal Palm Beach

The main controversy at the Royal Palm Beach Village Council meeting on Thursday, April 18 involved a private school looking to enter the Tuttle Royale project.

The council heard an application on behalf of EDX Royale Properties LLC regarding their request for a master plan site modification at the Tuttle Royale project’s Pod 7, currently designated on the site map as a “public charter school.” The applicant wanted it changed to read “public and private academic institution,” so BASIS Independent Schools, a national network of private schools, could develop the space.

Attorney Brian Seymour of the Gunster Law Firm was in attendance to present on behalf of the applicant and was joined by Sean Powell and LaNette Hodge of BASIS. His main evidence to support the request came from a traffic study and the verbiage in the village code.

“This really is a very simple thing. This is to identify the use that is in your code, which is the only use that your code provides relative to schools at all,” Seymour said. “The problem is that the [word] charter doesn’t exist in your code. So, what we’re asking is to use the language that is directly in your code, which is to say ‘public or private academic institution.’ That is all. The impacts don’t change. Everything that was approved for the site design is the same.”

Seymour went on to share statistics about BASIS, along with the K-12 institution’s impressive academic outcomes, college acceptance rates and the promise of bringing more than 100 jobs to the area for teachers and administrators at the school.

However, the site’s neighbors do not support the change. Planning & Zoning Director Bradford O’Brien included a letter in his presentation from the owners of pods 2, 3, 4 and 6 opposing the request.

“Tuttle Royale was never designed and planned with a high-end private school where the affluent residents from Wellington and downtown West Palm Beach could bring their kids into each day and leave them. It was designed for the people of Royal Palm Beach,” the letter stated. “One of the main attractions of the Tuttle Royale master plan was the centrally located charter school where residents could walk to school and walk home. This change drives a stake into the heart of the live, work, play community for the parents who want to walk their kids to school, who want to live next to the school, and who want to stay in the area so their kids can remain in the school over multiple years.”

During public comments, former State Rep. Ralph Arza, who grew up in Miami and is now an advocate for school choice, implored the council to support the request, stating that the recently expanded voucher system would assist families in covering tuition costs.

Attorney John Fumero of Nason, Yeager, Gerson & Fumero, on behalf of the landowner Royale Properties, also addressed the issue.

“What we are trying to avoid here, with all due respect, is a matter of policy trying to distinguish between a Starbucks and a Dunkin’ Donuts,” he said. “That’s not what should be done this evening. What should be done is based on the code and the zoning. The charter school notion was a little designation on a map, whether purposeful or not, it is just a designation on the map.”

Lauren Hollander, chair of the Florida Charter School Alliance, noted that the charter school environment has become a challenge due to construction and land costs.

Mark Rodberg, the contract buyer for the property over the last eight years, also asked the council to support the request. He argued that the two charter schools he was originally working with to move into the space have gone elsewhere, and that he does not have another school lined up outside of BASIS.

However, developer Brian Tuttle, creator of the Tuttle Royale project, had a very different outlook.

“This is just genuinely a difference of opinion, and it’s up to the council to decide which way to go,” he said. “This is a great school. This is a great asset for Palm Beach County, but this is not what we worked eight to 10 years to do. This is not what the design of the community was. To think that we put the word ‘charter’ on the master plan was an oversight — we sat in meetings for years debating what we were building here. Every word was reviewed.”

What really impacted the discussion was tuition costs. The tuition at BASIS is more than $30,000 a year. The school is willing to offer 10 partial scholarships, and if the $8,000 state voucher is also applied, it could bring the tuition down to the range of $20,000 per school year. When added to the expected rental rates within the project, some council members found that the price did not support the intent for the community.

After nearly two hours of discussion, Vice Mayor Jeff Hmara made a motion to deny the request, which was supported by Mayor Fred Pinto and Councilwoman Jan Rodusky. While Councilman Richard Valuntas and Councilwoman Selena Samios agreed that affordability was a concern, they did not feel it qualified denial of the request. The change was rejected on a 3-2 vote.

“We appreciate the testimony. This is not about whether or not you have a quality product. This is about this particular location that we’ve decided,” explained Pinto, who said there were other potential locations in Royal Palm Beach and elsewhere, and he encouraged them to pursue other sites.

In other business:

  • The meeting started on a positive note, when Hmara was highlighted for his recent award by the Florida League of Cities. He received the 2024 Home Rule Hero Award for outstanding advocacy during the 2024 legislative session. “There are a lot of things that go on in Tallahassee every year, where they seem to be driven to take away the local responsibility of cities or villages, and it’s called the battle for home rule,” Mayor Fred Pinto said, adding that there are more than 400 cities in the State of Florida. “For the Florida League of Cities to acknowledge his contribution to this important issue I think is outstanding.”
  • The final updated language to an ordinance amending the village code to allow artificial turf installation was approved. At the first reading, concerns about blade length were raised, and the minimum standard was changed to allow more artificial turf businesses and their products to qualify.
  • Village Manager Ray Liggins received a 5-percent merit raise along with his sixth employment agreement. Liggins is also preparing an extensive succession plan that will be provided to the council in May.
  • The council also approved new terms for members of advisory boards. Nancy Pennea and Jennifer Sullivan were reappointed to regular seats on the Education Advisory Board, set to expire in 2026. Sergio Herrera was reappointed to an alternate seat, which also expires in 2026. Lauren McClellan and Kara Dery’s seats on the Planning & Zoning Commission, which expired in 2024, were renewed through 2027. Five residents on the Recreation Advisory Board — Sandy Rubin, Sean Fitzpatrick, Denis Seibert, John Riordan and Robert Birch — were reappointed to their seats, which expire in 2026.