State Sen. Jeff Brandes vows to advocate for endangered Pinellas charter schools
The board overseeing Windsor Preparatory, East Windsor and Newpoint Pinellas Academy, three charter schools that could face termination by the Pinellas County School Board if they don't fix their problems within 90 days, had a special visitor at their Tuesday night meeting.
Florida Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) told parents he would fight to keep the two St. Petersburg schools and one Clearwater middle school open.
"I know you guys have been through quite a lot the last few months. That's probably an understatement," he told parents. "I know you have vision, and I know I'm here tonight to tell you I'm going to be your champion."
Later, Brandes told the Times that he wants to understand the situation between the schools and the district. He invited the schools' board to his Pinellas office and has begun conversations with the district's lawyer and lobbyist.
"Let's do a post-mortem here of what's occurred," he said.
Brandes said he wasn't sure the schools needed him before, like when their now-indicted management company, Newpoint Education Partners, went "AWOL" in March -- although he was in the legislative session in Tallahassee at that time.
Brandes said he would like to find a management company for the schools. His campaign has benefited from such companies with controversial pasts: Academica, Charter Schools USA and Community Education Partners have donated $3,500 altogether.
When asked which management companies Brandes would recommend, he said he would compile a list of top 10 charter school management companies provided by the state. The state's data on management companies is self-reported by charter schools, lags one year behind and can be inaccurate.
Wary of management companies, the schools' board has repeatedly said it intends to self-manage their schools, although district officials have questioned if the board is capable of doing so.
"We've made it clear as a board that we are self-managing at this time," said board chairman and Windsor Prep parent Chris Wenzel.
In response to that, Brandes said, "That’s what they’re saying right now. I think there’s pros and cons to that."
He added, "If that’s what they choose to do, then i’m going to help them do that. I’m happy to help them do that. At the end of the day I want to make sure that they have fully vetted their decision and have access (to management companies)...And to not try to influence their decision but to be an advocate to their behalf."
Regardless, board members and parents welcomed Brandes' help.
"I'm of the mindset that you solicit any help that's offered but keeping in mind that no one works for free," said board member and Windsor Prep parent, Megan Duncan-Smith.
On the more optimistic side, "He can stir things up," said parent Steve Levine, 31. "I think it's amazing that he's stepping up to do this."