Districts clamping down on charter schools

Districts clamping down on charter schools

By Amy Shipley and Karen Yi Sun Sentinel 12/23/2014

School districts deny charter-school applicants with ties to failed schools Palm Beach County takes bold moves to regulate charter school industry Districts crack down on charter schools to prevent failures

South Florida school districts are cracking down on the local charter school industry in the wake of a Sun-Sentinel investigation that exposed a rise in fly-by-night charter schools and few safeguards against renegade operators.

In a blitz of action in recent weeks, Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties have refused to allow applicants with ties to failed schools to open new ones while Broward and Palm have used legal or municipal muscle to try to stem abuses.

Several state lawmakers told the Sun Sentinel in November they would push for stronger laws during the next legislative session to ensure that newcomers to the charter school industry had financial backing and no prior history with shuttered schools.

But local school districts — feeling pressure to ensure that only quality operators settle in their communities — are taking matters into their own hands.

Palm Beach County's School Board has led the clampdown in recent weeks, denying every new charter school applicant for the first time in at least five years. In another rare move, the School Board this month approved taking legal action to recoup missing taxpayer dollars and public assets from a now-closed charter school.

"We want to set a precedent," said Jim Pegg, who oversees charter schools for the Palm Beach County school district. "We want everybody to know that we're just not going to sit back and allow this to happen. We're going to get our assets and our money that belongs to the public."

Cities, too, are taking a stance against charter-school operators that open and close schools within months. Commissioners in Lauderhill plan to impose a six-month moratorium on new charter schools to give city officials a chance to draw up laws that could require operators to undergo background checks and prove sooner that they have secured buildings for their schools. Tamarac officials also added new rules for any school opening within city limits, mandating that campuses have at least a 3-acre site, be in a free-standing building or have dedicated drop-off areas for students.

Charter schools, which were intended to foster innovation in public education, are taxpayer-funded but privately operated. There are more than 250 such schools in South Florida.

Though state laws do not require any background checks of those seeking to open new charter schools, district officials in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade each rejected a number of applicants with ties to failed schools during their annual review of proposed new charter schools. Some applications in Miami-Dade are still pending.

Broward rejected one application and Dade rejected four that listed Steve Gallon III as a consultant or point of contact. Gallon's company provided consulting services to charter schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties that shut down in 2013. At least three of the rejected schools have appealed the denials to the state; those cases are pending. Gallon did not return a request for comment. Broward also rejected an application submitted by Ann-Marie Manzano, who founded two Sunshine Academy charter schools in Broward and Miami-Dade that shut down in 2007. She withdrew her charter-school application in Dade. Manzano could not be reached for comment. And Palm Beach County denied two applications from David Stiles, vice president of operations and development for Newpoint Education Partners, the company that managed two Magnolia charter schools that shut down in Broward two weeks into their first school year. Stiles declined comment.

The quick closures highlighted by the newspaper's probe have continued.

Just last week, a first-year charter school, Transitions Elementary in West Palm Beach, voluntarily shut down after fewer than four months of operation because of low enrollment and financial problems.

More than three dozen South Florida charter schools have shuttered or been ordered to close since the fall of 2012. The newspaper found that 10 of those schools lasted two months or fewer.

The Sun Sentinel reported in June that South Florida districts lost more than $1 million over the last five years on schools that closed prematurely and didn't return taxpayer money intended for students. Pegg said operators often scatter when schools close, making it difficult for districts to recover money and district assets.

Though state law says unused charter-school dollars must be returned to the districts, it does not empower districts to recoup that cash. But Pegg said the county decided to take an "aggressive strategy" with respect to the Charter School of Boynton Beach, which was forced to shut down in July for poor academics.

The Palm Beach County School Board last week approved taking legal action to collect public money and assets from the school, which opened in 2002. District officials say the school never gave back $387,286 in taxpayer dollars it owed.

Officials and an attorney for the charter school did not return calls seeking comment.

"We're disappointed with the strength charter law provides us… so we will explore every opportunity legally we can," Pegg said. The Palm Beach County School Board also rejected a charter-school application from Charter Schools USA, a large management company that operates 42 schools in Florida. The board said though the school met every application requirement, it lacked innovation and merely replicated existing programs.

A representative from Charter Schools USA said the company would review the decision before taking any action."We're not going to approve these charters that just fill out the paperwork properly and don't have anything special to offer our children," said board member Debra Robinson. "This is an act of civil disobedience, because some of this stuff we're told to do is crazy."

Robert Haag, president of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, reacted to the moves with skepticism. He lauded the districts' denials of applicants with ties to failed schools, but claimed they over-reached in other areas -- more eager to stamp out competition for traditional public schools than weed out bad apples.

"There is a difference between cracking down on a bad apple and actually trying to stop charter schools from opening," Haag said. Districts "have power when they want to have power." # # #