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Growing Pains For Florida's Charter School Industry

Florida's first charter school opened 20 years ago.  Since then, enrollment in these publicly funded, privately run schools has exploded. 

Today, more than 250,000 students attend about 650 charter schools across the state and many of them are returning to school this week.

But the rapid growth has come with more than a few speed bumps.

Nine-year-old Leilani Wenzel is going to a new school this year and she's not sure how to feel about that. "Nervous, but kind of exciting,” she said. “Cause I don't know who I'm going to meet."

If it was up to her father, Chris Wenzel, the fourth grader would be in the same school she's gone to since kindergarten. 

But that's not an option.

Windsor Prep Academy in St. Petersburg closed in June following allegations of serious financial misconduct by  Newpoint Education Partners, the charter school's for-profit management company. 

"It was a real eye opener,” Wenzel said. “I've been at the school four years, never attended a board meeting until last November and I should have been more aware as well as all the other parents what was going on--attending these board meetings and asking these tough questions. Where's the funding going? What are these loans for?"

Dorothy Dulau of St Petersburg was also hoping her child could return to Windsor.  Her son loved his kindergarten teacher and was looking forward to attending first grade there.

“Windsor, the school, did not represent the management company by any means,” she said. "The people that worked at the school were normal people just like us, a lot of them, their children went to the school. So the management company was about the money and the other people were about the students.”

The Pinellas County School Board worked with Windsor parents in an effort to keep the school from closing but the landlord’s price was too steep.  A spokesperson for the district said the landlord’s first offer on leasing was $994,00 per year and the county was offering $250,000.  As a result of being so far apart on lease amounts, the county switched to discussions around a sale. The landlord’s final offer was $8,900,000.

Most of Windsor's displaced students received special assignment to attend a public school of their choosing.

In May, a grand jury in Escambia County indicted Newpoint on criminal charges, including grand theft and money laundering involving three charter schools it managed in Pensacola.

But it’s not just for-profit charter schools that are being accused of misusing state money.  In Broward County, an audit of the nonprofit Pathways Charter Academy in Lauderdale Lakes found officials there spent thousands of dollars on personal items.

And these aren’t the only charters schools closing doors. As of June 30, data from the Florida Department of Education shows that 16 charters shut down. In 2015, 27 closed.

In Florida, local school boards review all charter school applications, and are required to act on the application within 60 days. But the approval process is mostly procedural.  Few school boards deny applications, and must provide written reasons within 10 days if they do. 

Pinellas County School Board Member Rene Flowers said that approval process doesn’t mesh with the level of academic and financial autonomy charter schools get. If districts could better vet charter school applications, Flowers said Pinellas Schools may have learned about Newpoint's issues in other counties. 

"I can assure you that if individuals had been aware of the fact that they have had financial concerns in the past they would not have been given the go ahead or most certainly questioned the fact that they should not be opening based on questions and concerns regarding financial viability,” she said.

Earlier this year, the legislature did beef up Florida's charter school law and charter school management now must provide monthly or quarterly financial statements.

But money isn’t the only problem some charters face. The programs also are evaluated and assigned a school grade by the Florida Department of Education using the same standards as district-run public schools.

The grades dealt a blow to University Preparatory Academy in St. Petersburg. After receiving three consecutive F's, the board of the charter school with 400 students voted to shut down just weeks before a new school year started The Pinellas County School District responded by taking it over as a public school.

That kind of last minute intervention doesn't sit well with Flowers, the Pinellas County School Board member.

"Public school systems are required to approve charter school applications but when it comes to instances like Windsor and like UPA, it's the local public school entity that's required to close them down,” she said. “So it puts that responsibility on us. It’s like the bad guy, good guy and we're the bad guy."

Susan Latvala served on the Pinellas County School Board for eight years and was an advocate for the state's charter law.  She still believes families should have a public school option but even she thinks there are problems with the relationship between the state and local districts.

"It’s just a vicious circle and until everybody gets on the same page and agrees that we're going to do everything we can to help every single student be successful, then there's going to be those frictions,” she said.

And that, she said, hurts everybody.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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