Where Did The Money Lead?

payoffby Pat Hall

While Pat and her team were following the money at CSUSA, she would call me with the latest episode.  The process began to feel like a detective story. I asked her to write down the process so that others who were trying to search out facts could learn.  Finding the data was step one, but getting  the information publicized was an equal challenge.  The impact was substantial.  The school district added a new staff position to help monitor the charter schools.  The local school board and its staff and attorney were involved.  The Commander of the MacDill Air Force Base was involved.  The Tampa Bay Times and the local CBS television station ran stories.  Here’s the process..Part II:  The Process

Little did Mickey Castor and I know where our first meeting in August of 2013 with Jenna Hodgens, Director of Charter Schools for Hillsborough County Schools, would lead. The state LWV had adopted a study of charter schools in April 2013 and 20 local leagues participated. The study culminated in adoption of positions on Oversight, Charter School Purpose and Management, Transparency & Accountability, Conflict of Interest and Charter School Facilities and Funding at the state convention in Tallahassee in April of 2014. Dr. Sue Legg initiated the study in Alachua County and. due to her dedication to the project, she was named “Leaguer of the Year” at the state convention.

We held an information gathering meeting for our membership in September of 2013 in cooperation with Hillsborough County Classroom Teachers Association at their newly renovated cigar factory building on Habana Avenue. Jeffrey Solochek, education writer for Pasco County for the Tampa Bay Times, was our guest speaker. He gave me his detailed information after the presentation and our investigation took off from that point.

Much of the additional information we reviewed was gathered by googling “charter schools” and a myriad of subtopics. There are many people across the country doing similar searches. We have received requests for articles, details and “how did you find that?” from New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Minnesota, etc.

Collaborating with the school district has been vital to our success. As a retired teacher and department chair I was a known entity, but gaining the trust of the power brokers was enhanced after our November, 2013 meeting with long-time school district attorney, Tom Gonzalez. His skepticism with for-profit management companies, former church schools as charters, discipline practices and ultimately his referencing the Florida Trend magazine article on Jonathan Hage from December 26, 2012 ignited our interest in following the trail “public when it suits us, private when we are hiding distribution” of tax payer money.

John Teti gets the credit for starting us on the financial quest into the dealings of Charter Schools USA. He found the financial statement for Winthrop Charter School at about the same time as I looked at the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s site for the three Charter Schools USA in our county. In February and early March, 2014 we sent letters and forwarded what we found to Sue Legg and Tom Gonzalez. This real estate piece has been quoted nationally by Diane Ravitch, former Under Secretary of Education for the US. Charter Schools USA schools are built/remodeled and purchased by Ryan Construction, Minneapolis, MN. When the buildings are completed, they are sold to Red Apple Development, owned by Charter Schools USA. The not-for-profit board that holds the charter pays lease fees to Ryan Construction. This scheme locks in big profits for their operations and saddles taxpayers with more than $3,200,000 in escalating annual leases fees, public dollars that are not being spent to educate children!

John said to me in early March, “you must get the media involved!” Marlene Sokol from the Tampa Bay Times met with us for two hours in April, reviewed our research documents, (binders of property appraisals, copies of CSUSA board meetings, audits, etc.) and set up a meeting with the editors of the paper. A front page article finally appeared in November.  Shirley Arcuri and I collaborated on an opinion piece that was published April 1st in the Tampa Bay Times entitled “Charter schools fail to boost achievement.” Patrick Manteiga, Editor and Publisher of La Gaceta, a 92 year weekly newspaper printed in English, Spanish and Italian in Tampa, suggested that I write a series of seven articles called “Charter School Explosion.” Every Friday, from May 30th to July 11th, articles appeared detailing our research on demographics, performance, teacher issues, good and not so good charter schools, the real estate and finance concerns, accountability, and, finally, recommendations for legal and legislative changes. You can find these articles online. These articles have been referenced and cited in multiple venues.

In mid-July I contacted investigative reporter Noah Pransky, WTSP (the CBS television affiliate) in St. Petersburg. Within hours of receiving the articles, he called and requested more. On July 30th he said that they thought the story should run after the election or just before legislative session next year. That same day he got the story about the 90 day warning letters sent by Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia to Charter Schools USA, threatening to shut them down due to multiple governance violations that Charter Schools USA had ignored for months. Pransky ran that as breaking news on July 30th. In mid-August he filmed and ran a story “Charter schools making big profits for private companies,” where he revealed that 23% of Winthrop Charter School’s budget is rent. He also revealed that Jon Hage, CEO of CSUSA, has spent more than $2,500,000 on lobbying in the last four years! Share this story.

On July 31st Charter Schools USA submitted their 580 page application for MacDill Charter Academy on MacDill Air Force Base. Robin Jones, who has been invaluable to this study, had a brilliant rebuttal opinion piece printed on July 30th in the Tampa Tribune, refuting claims of fictional great successes of charter schools by Col. Scott DeThomas, retiring base commander from MacDill. I wrote a letter to the Tampa Tribune appearing on Primary Election day, “Time to slow down the charter school train?” We think our involvement, along with individual visits with each of the seven school board members, providing them with copies of the state LWV study and our local research, helped turn the tide; Charter Schools USA withdrew their MacDill application.

Superintendent Elia spoke with us twice during our September visits, praising what she had learned from Tom Gonzalez and, after receiving her copy of our study, her amazement regarding the real estate schemes. On her subsequent trip to the editors of the Tampa Tribune, she referenced the League study.

Participation of League members has been extraordinary during the course of this study. New board member Robin Jones has been incredible as researcher, data analysis expert, editor, e-mailer, and hostess for multiple meetings. Jean Yglesias, new to our League from Orlando, has helped with perspectives from other venues and dazzled Marlene Sokol, reporter from the Tampa Bay Times, with a brunch like no other. John Teti has so many skills, where do I start? John designed our consensus presentation to the general membership in January of 2014 at the Jan Platt Library. Almost 30 members were in attendance and came to consensus on 17 of 18 questions supplied by the state league. Mickey Castor did a terrific job on the four page background information flyer that was mailed to the membership with consensus questions. MaryEllin Territo has printed and brought articles to me, Toni Thompson and her husband Dave Amis are examining the financial statements and lease agreements, Kathleen Moore has evaluated the MacDill Charter Academy application, Congresswoman Kathy Castor has offered to speak to the school board if needed, retired USF President Betty Castor and lobbyist Kathy Betancourt have provided assistance and ideas.

The state board of LWV took action on the charter schools issue in February so that members could lobby their legislators during the spring session of the Florida Legislature. Some of the documents have been submitted to the Southern Legal Counsel for their “Citizens for Strong Schools” lawsuit.  Now that the LWV education blog has launched, we have national facilities and education management committees to continue the work nationally.

Posted in Advocacy, Charter School Management, Charter Schools, Florida, Funding.

Leave a Reply