RIVERVIEW — Hillsborough County school officials thought they had the goods on Kid's Community College, a tax-supported charter school.
The founder had three relatives on the payroll, suggesting a conflict of interest. His sister had at one time served on the governing board.
Parents were asked to pay dues to an organization related to the school, another potential conflict. Plus, paying all the fees and donations the school wanted could set a parent back nearly $1,000 — even though public school is supposed to be free.
Enough, the district said. Time to end the charter that entitled Kid's Community to millions of dollars in state funding.
That was 2013, when MaryEllen Elia ran the district. A majority on the School Board wanted to keep a close watch on charter schools, which are run independently and compete for public school students.
The landscape looks different now, as politically powerful charter operators make increasing demands for the same standing as government schools.
In Hillsborough alone, an estimated $125 million in tax dollars will flow this year to more than 40 charter schools, from mom-and-pop operations to mass-produced chain schools. Viewed warily by the old guard, charters now are seen by some as a release valve in high-growth areas where the district cannot afford to build.
In a generation, the charter movement has turned public education in Florida on its head.
It was once expected that public schools would educate all kids regardless of income or family circumstance. But the advance of charters has established a pecking order as schools spring up for families who seek them out and can meet their expectations, from mandatory volunteer hours to driving kids to the schoolhouse door.
More than 270,000 Florida students go to charter schools, an enrollment figure that has grown by more than 200 percent over the last decade, according to the Florida Charter School Alliance. That amounts to roughly one in 10 public school students. The schools attract people who find district systems bureaucratic and beholden to unions that protect bad teachers.
Critics fear the outcome will be a privatization of education, or a two-tiered system in which district-run schools exist for those who cannot access the charters.
But that resistance is wearing down. And nothing illustrates that better than the case of Kid's Community College.
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Timothy Kilpatrick, 48, has no education degree, and he's proud of it. "I don't have any predeterminations of what I can or cannot do," he said.
He made his money in the food distribution industry, enough to retire at 35. Last year he said he earned $152,000 as superintendent of Kid's Community College, which operates three schools serving more than 800 Hillsborough students.
His wife, mother and sister-in-law all work there.
He got interested in education for the most personal of reasons: His adopted son had a learning disability. The family lived in Riverview, a mass of rural neighborhoods and suburbs southeast of Tampa. Schools there did not have much to offer, he said
So Kilpatrick launched a preschool based on the multiple intelligence teachings of developmental psychologist Howard Gardner.
"I believe the public educational system has to embrace the notion that parents get to choose the educational institution that's going to best serve their needs, and I feel that we need to embrace that," Kilpatrick said in a recent interview.
His first bid for a charter school did not succeed. So he and his colleagues formed the Committee for Academic Excellence. They worked on preschool literacy. Eventually they got the go-ahead for Kid's Community, which opened a K-5 school in 2005. Over the years they added a middle school, an International Baccalaureate elementary school and a school in Orlando.
Teachers were called "professors." Students had individual learning plans and after-school sports. The population represented a healthy mix of white, African-American and Hispanic students. Parent support was strong.
"It's an option," said Amanda Twigg, when asked why she chose Kid's Community for her gifted daughter. The district choice system did not give her what she wanted. With charters, "you're not stuck at a failing school — or not even a failing school, a school that performs poorly to your expectations."
But like other such schools, Kid's Community asked more of its parents. They were expected to buy sets of uniforms for $50 to $75, depending on a child's age. The total package of fees — including planners, lockers and teaching materials — ran from $180 to $350.
Parents were asked to commit to volunteer hours. They could pay cash instead, until the state banned that practice. They were expected to help with at least one yearly fundraiser and sell five memberships to the committee, bringing in another $50. And there was a suggested donation of $500.
Meeting minutes of the school's governing board show Kilpatrick urged staff to keep the donations and membership sales coming in.
"Our beautiful school is complete, so now it is being asked for parents to live up to what was promised on their end," says an entry from November 2012.
"Not expecting more, just what was initially promised to continue to afford the school and many additional programs added every year."
Critics said invoices gave the appearance that parents were being billed, and lists of donors in the school newsletters created social pressure to give.
Kilpatrick insists that there was no pressure, that about a third of the parents donated, and that there were no adverse consequences if they didn't.
But the whole system bothered Twigg, who now sends her children to a district school that she likes. "We didn't have the money," she said. "We have three children. I wasn't working."
Twigg complained to the district. She was told there were other complaints. Kilpatrick said it was just a handful, and some were anonymous.
Kid's Community was trying to get 10-year contract renewals for the first elementary school and the middle school, a process that began in late 2012. Kilpatrick thought his group was on solid footing with the district.
He was wrong.
Elia and district charter schools director Jenna Hodgens asked questions about the fees and donations. They flagged the schools' relationship with the committee, and the jobs held by Kilpatrick's relatives.
Kilpatrick insisted the donations were voluntary and the committee was well-known to the district from the outset. He said he was too high up in the organization to supervise his relatives, who were hired before a state law made them an issue.
Both sides hired lawyers.
Elia suggested granting the schools a one-year contract. Kid's Community said it was being treated more harshly than other schools.
The schools filed a petition with the state's Division of Administrative Hearings.
There were allegations that district staff spread the word that Kid's Community was closing and was coming at the schools for "personal" reasons.
Hundreds of parents petitioned Elia and the School Board in support of the schools. To rebut a letter from Elia about fees, Kilpatrick issued a thick report that listed fees the district charges for music and career programs.
Longtime politician Thomas Scott wrote to the School Board members, saying he would gauge his support of them based on their actions toward Kid's Community.
Kid's Community president Ken Scarborough, in one of his letters to the School Board, alluded to member Stacy White's possible campaign for the County Commission. He suggested White take "an independent tough look" at the charter school situation.
While all this pressure was mounting, Elia's own support was beginning to crumble.
Board members, including the newly elected Sally Harris, visited Kid's Community. "I was impressed by the school and how it was run," Harris said later. "But mostly I was impressed by the parents' passion."
In early 2015, the board fired Elia and hired Jeff Eakins as superintendent. Hodgens was called into a meeting.
"Talk to me. It's been two and a half years," Eakins said. "What are the issues? Is there any way we can resolve this?"
No one disputed students were getting a good education at A-rated Kid's Community.
Hodgens, however, thought the operational problems were still grounds for action. "We had it on paper," she said. "We had what we needed. We could have won."
But she also knew Kid's Community could appeal in charter-friendly Tallahassee. And Eakins clearly wanted to move forward.
It took more than six months to iron out a settlement.
None of Kilpatrick's relatives had to resign. The schools did not have to stop collecting fees or donations, as long as the donations were clearly voluntary. Each side agreed not to blame the other.
On Jan. 12, School Board members approved the 10-year contract unanimously. They also green-lighted a Kid's Community high school. Member Carol Kurdell said it would be useless to vote no "because this whole board can say no and they can go right to Tallahassee, and they'll tell them yes."
Later she remarked that sometimes, "you have to say yes even though it smells to high heaven."
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The neighborhoods near Kid's Community tell some of the story of who goes to charter schools.
Gibsonton Elementary School, with 94 percent poverty, is 2.5 miles from Kid's Community's school on Mathog Road. But the rundown neighborhood around Gibsonton sends just 13 children to Kid's Community's two elementary schools.
Collins Elementary, farther away in the planned community of Panther Trace, has a poverty rate of just 40 percent. That neighborhood sends 61 children to Kid's Community.
Some elementary schools with higher-than-average poverty rates lose large numbers to Kid's Community — Sessums and Corr, for example. But the overall poverty rates at the three Kid's Community Schools are only 30 to 38 percent.
Kilpatrick addressed the school's extra amenities in an interview. "A real good question to ask: Is it classism?" He answered with a resounding "No."
Parents and staff gladly pitch in if a child cannot afford a field trip or another school expense, he said. "We're not going to have an organization that underserves any child."
Marketing and public relations manager Elizabeth Thompson said this about asking parents for money: "It's no secret that charter schools receive less funding per student than the public schools. And at KCC particularly, we pride ourselves that we are doing more with, quite frankly, less. They are not required to donate that money. But we do ask that they donate that money so that we can continue to provide the level of high quality education that we provide."
But Hodgens said it's clear that poor families perceive Kid's Community as costly — not a private school, yet not a true public school either.
"And see, that's what bothers me, I guess, as a person," she said. "Because I'm thinking, if I'm a poor kid and I tell my mom I want to go to Kid's Community College and then my mom finds out you have to pay a $500 enhancement fee and $280 in consumables, my mom says to me, 'You're going to stay at Gibsonton.' I don't even have a choice."
So, as a charter school, she said, "you can select your kids without selecting your kids if you do certain things."
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Even as national polls show the public wants increased oversight of charter schools, lawmakers continue to heed the schools' call for more power and funding. This year they will get half the Florida school system's capital maintenance dollars although they serve roughly 10 percent of public schoolchildren.
Some school boards, including those in Palm Beach and Pasco counties, continue to turn down charter applications that aren't faithful to the schools' original mission, which was to spark innovation.
In Hillsborough, though, the current board is more receptive. Member Susan Valdes accepted $3,000 for her current political campaign from the Charter Schools USA management company, its owner and its real estate developer. She said she was proud to earn their support.
Chairwoman April Griffin remarked recently that, with so much population growth in south Hillsborough, it is fortunate that new charter schools are planned.
Kurdell, who made the "smells to high heaven" remark, announced weeks after that January meeting that she will leave the board in November.
Since then, she has been voting against charter contracts. "It has grown into a monster I can no longer support," she said on May 24. Board member Doretha Edgecomb, who is also stepping down, sided with Kurdell.
But they are in the minority.
And, while they might want to vote no on ideological grounds, Hodgens warned that state law protects charter school operators, exposing school boards to costly challenges if they turn them down without good cause.
"They have a whole litany of due process," she said.
In Palm Beach County, where the School Board is battling a Charter Schools USA proposal, Hodgens said, "they seem to be spending tons of money, and I don't know that their point is being made."
Organized labor, which typically does not represent charter school teachers, is also watching the schools warily.
While acknowledging some charters are good, Hillsborough teachers union director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins said lawmakers' self-interest has corrupted the system.
"Accountability is not the same," she said. "Funding is not the same. The only way you make a profit is if you're hurting students in some manner, or if you're taking something away, or if you're charging for services you really shouldn't be charging in the public system."
Ultimately, she said, district schools will suffer because "we already fail to fund our public school system at even a pretty much bare minimum level. We're already at the bottom of the barrel."
Hodgens today is working to repair her relationship with Kid's Community College.
She was at the Mathog Road school on May 24 for a ceremony to honor the state's top charter schools. She has been advising School Board members that charter schools are not going away, and it's better to collaborate with them than to wage war.
Of 12 new schools Hillsborough approved for 2016-17, Kid's Community High is one of two that are certain to open this year.
And just last month, the group submitted a charter application for a second middle school.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @marlenesokol.