CLEARWATER — Pinellas County school officials issued an ultimatum Thursday to the operators of the Life Force Arts and Technology Academy charter school: fix your finances or shut down.
A stern letter mailed to the head of the school's governing board showed that the school is struggling to pay its teachers and vendors, as well as the landlord.
The letter came after the firing of principal Martie Woodie this week by the school's governing board. The board learned that she had been arrested in Manatee County on a charge of exploitation of the elderly. Authorities say Woodie stole at least $16,000 from a trust designated to pay her 77-year-old adoptive mother's health care expenses, using the money to, among other things, rent a car and take a cruise.
Life Force board chairman Maurice Mickens said Woodie's arrest was a surprise but that board members had been concerned about her management of the school.
"She made some management decisions that we didn't think were good," he said. "We were looking to make a change at the end of the school year. We had no idea what was going on in her personal life."
Woodie was the principal who welcomed students to the Life Force school when it opened two years ago. The school serves mostly low-income African-American students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Pinellas school district assistant superintendent Kevin Smith said the district has been watching a steady decline in Life Force's financial health for several months. The school's financial reports show that its expenses have exceeded budgeted amounts for three months.
And student enrollment is so low that generating enough revenue to operate could be tough, said Smith. Life Force, at 1390 Sunset Point Road, was supposed to serve at least 276 students this year under the terms of its charter, but its enrollment is down to 106.
Charter schools are public schools funded by tax dollars and chartered by county school districts, but they are operated by their own boards. However, state law requires local school districts to monitor the schools.
Last year, the school district revoked the charter for Life Skills Center, another Pinellas charter school, for poor academic performance.
Life Force has 10 days to decide whether it will devise a plan to shore up its sagging finances or close, according to the letter from the school district.
Mickens, the board chairman, expects the Life Force charter school to correct its financial course and keep going.
"We are having some issues in terms of paying our bills," Mickens said. "We have some corrective action things we have to do, but it's not unsolvable. A lot of charter schools … struggle, especially in the first couple of years."
After firing Woodie, the Life Force board named science and math teacher Larry McCullin interim principal. Mickens said he's doing a "phenomenal job."
"He's a great guy," Mickens said. "The staff respects him."
On Thursday, a greeting from Woodie was still on the school's Web page.
According to Manatee County court records, the state Department of Children and Families received a report of possible exploitation of an elderly woman at an assisted living facility in Bradenton in August. The woman, retired schoolteacher Mattie Parker, is Woodie's adoptive mother. Parker suffers from dementia, according to an investigative report filed with the court.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office opened an investigation, and the state Office of the Attorney General's Medicaid fraud control unit began monitoring the case because Medicaid funds may have been misappropriated.
According to the investigative report, authorities determined that Woodie was the trustee for her mother's income cap trust, a tool by which a person who has too much income can qualify for Medicaid benefits. The trust allowed Woodie to receive her mother's $3,000-a-month teacher's pension and Social Security funds, which were to be used for Parker's health care.
But according to the report, Woodie failed to make payments to the assisted living facility, forcing Parker to fall $19,000 in arrears, and instead spent some of the money on herself. Investigators reported that, at a minimum, Woodie stole $16,039.
Investigators said transactions included payments to Grambling State University, which Woodie's stepdaughter attends, a car loan payment, store purchases, a car rental, a cruise and a funeral for a relative, as well as checks Woodie made out to herself.
Woodie was arrested April 16 and posted $1,000 bail that day.