Ground broken for special ops school
U.S. Special Operations Command broke ground Thursday on a $34 million building for its Joint Special Operations University near SOCom's headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base. The 90,000-square-foot facility will provide a permanent home for a school that has been housed in an old credit union building just outside MacDill's main gate for about three years. Last year, more than 8,200 military and civilian personnel participated in 150 seminars and courses, according to SOCom.
Jonathan Hage sat on Gov. Rick Scott's education transition team. He and his company, Charter Schools USA, have given more than $100,000 to Scott's Let's Get To Work fund and the state Republican Party.
Now it appears it was Scott — or someone very close to him — who suggested Charter Schools USA run a school at MacDill Air Force Base.
Meeting minutes obtained by the Hillsborough County school district, which opposes the school, describe the origin of a plan that is now at the heart of a battle before the Florida Board of Education.
"Upon advice from Governor Scott, MacDill Air Force Base representatives reached out to Charter Schools USA to support the process to develop and operate a charter school," the meeting minutes say.
The minutes summarize a July meeting of the nonprofit Florida Charter Educational Foundation, which works closely with Charter Schools USA.
Tom Gonzalez, a lawyer for the Hillsborough district, included the minutes in a legal filing opposing the charter. Gonzalez wants to prove there is not enough distance between the foundation — which he called "a fig leaf of a not-for-profit" – and for-profit Charter Schools USA.
Groups affiliated with Charter Schools USA have been successful in winning charters, including three in Hillsborough County. But Gonzalez contends it's clear the MacDill project was not handled appropriately, as the company got involved first and the foundation later.
Based on staff recommendations, the School Board rejected the MacDill plan in December. A state appeals commission recently backed the district's decision. The state Board of Education, whose six members all are Scott appointees, will make the final decision on March 18.
Hage, once the research director of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, has been a faithful contributor to Republican politicians.
Hage founded Charter Schools USA in 1997 and owns 95 percent of the Fort Lauderdale company. In September he gave $50,000 to Let's Get To Work, an organization that supports Scott's re-election campaign. His company gave another $50,000 to the state Republican Party in December.
Colleen Reynolds, spokeswoman for Charter Schools USA, denied that the ties between Scott and Hage were the cause of any recommendation the governor might have made. "Gov. Scott aligns himself with people who do good work," she said. "He has aligned himself with Jon Hage because he is an expert in this field. We are leaders in the industry."
Scott spokesman John Tupps did not answer specific questions but issued a statement saying the company, the Hillsborough district and MacDill are trying to work together to serve military families.
The school district contends it already serves the military community, making a charter school unnecessary. Tinker Elementary School, on the base, earns an A every year. Middle school students can attend C-rated Monroe Middle School in South Tampa or a number of magnet schools throughout the district.
But MacDill officials told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board in November that military families have unique needs and require more support than the traditional schools might offer. What's more, they say, there is not enough room at Tinker for children whose parents live outside the base.
Two days after the MacDill group met with the Times editorial board, Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia made an appearance. Elia said she offered to convert Monroe into a K-8 school to accommodate children from off the base. She also offered to run any charter school built at MacDill. She said she got no response.