LAND O'LAKES — When Diana Brown enrolled her son Lucas at the Imagine School in Land O'Lakes, she had high hopes.
Brown had relied on private schools for her children's education to that point. But tough times prompted her to look for less expensive options, and the charter school's promise of a private school education at a public school price — free — attracted her attention.
From the start, Brown stayed involved, rising to become the school's PTO president.
She quickly grew disillusioned, though, when Lucas arrived for seventh grade this fall to find what she considered a disorganized schedule, unqualified teachers and a thin curriculum.
So Brown pulled Lucas out of Imagine, got a second job and enrolled her son in a private Christian school.
"I'm paying for it," she said. "But what a difference in education."
Brown isn't the only one upset with Imagine School of Land O'Lakes.
The school's enrollment has declined by 50 students — down to 485 — since the fourth week of classes. Its waiting list has shrunk to a fraction of what it was when the charter school first opened two years ago, with seats available in almost every grade level. Its governing board has experienced almost a complete turnover.
Pasco County school district officials found several areas of concern in their recent review of Imagine, including problems with financial reporting, governance, non-profit status, teacher certification and monitoring of student progress. The school's delay in filing one set of papers with the state has jeopardized about $75,000 in funding that was expected to pay for textbooks.
Such problems have piqued the concern of Pasco School Board members, who said they expect Imagine to shape up. They stopped short of saying they would move to close the school, noting that doing so is difficult under existing law. But they stressed the need for change.
"Imagine now knows in black and white what we're looking for and what we have a right to expect," said board chairwoman Joanne Hurley, who sits on the district's charter school advisory committee. "Now it's up to them to comply with what is expected."
Vice chairman Allen Altman agreed.
"They would be very wise to heed the numerous warnings that have been issued to them both by staff and by board members," Altman said.
Longtime Imagine employee Kathy Helean became principal of the K-8 school late in the summer. She replaced founding principal John Selover, who left shortly after failing to win the School Board's approval to add students to Imagine's enrollment.
She asserted that the school is responding to district and parent concerns as best as it can.
"That was last year's report. I'm the new principal," Helean said, referring to the district's review. "To me, every year is fresh."
Since taking over, she said, the school has improved the timeliness of its financial reports to the district. It has moved its board meetings from early mornings to weekday evenings to allow parents to attend more easily. It has repaired several fire code safety violations, and also focused its efforts on improving the school's C grade from the state.
Children who need it get a double dose of math daily, as well as an additional 30-minute block of reading lessons, Helean said. Teachers have stepped up their monitoring of progress by students who scored at the lowest levels on the FCAT, and the administration has made attendance a priority.
Last year, nearly half of all students were absent 10 or more days.
She said she had asked the district for more specific details about Imagine's current deficits, so the school can respond.
"If there is something new, tell me so we can address it," Helean said.
The charter way
Nancy Scowcroft, the school district's charter school supervisor, said she has tried but failed to get together with Helean. Even if they met, Scowcroft said, "It would simply be going over the same information again."
Scowcroft harbors a concern that has aired nationally about the non-profit status of Imagine. The state requires charters to be run by non-profit entities, yet Imagine corporate headquarters in Virginia has yet to secure that status from the IRS.
Also mirroring other complaints about Imagine across the country, Scowcroft notes that the local charter sends nearly 40 percent of its state money to the company rather than putting it into the school. The school has run two years of deficits, meanwhile, covered only by Imagine's corporate coffers, she said.
Moreover, the school's board of directors has what Scowcroft called limited power. Most of the members have turned over in the past year, and the decisions they make are largely controlled by the parent company, she said.
Three of five board members did not return calls to the Times. President Amanda Battastoni left a return message but could not be reached for comment. A fifth member, Morson Livingston, referred questions to more active board members, saying, "I have resigned from that position."
Helean, who has worked for Imagine since it purchased the charter company she previously worked for, said the board has local control and that she reports directly to them.
Despite all these concerns, Scowcroft said, the district has few options. Closing the school before its contract comes up for renewal in two years is unlikely, she said, as the only reasons for closure that the state generally accepts are repeated academic failure, financial mismanagement and clear contract violations.
Short of that, she said, the district can only monitor the school and try to fix the problems.
She acknowledged complaints from a handful of parents, including former PTO president Brown and another mom, Lucy Barr, who met several times with superintendent Heather Fiorentino to air grievances about Imagine.
Some of their issues are valid, Scowcroft said, while others don't pan out. Barr, who moved her son Daniel to Athenian Academy this year, suggested that more parents share their concerns over teacher qualifications, a lack of textbooks, problems with availability of information and the like.
But many won't come forward, she said, because they don't want to rock the boat.
That's a big issue, Scowcroft said. District reviews can capture the big picture, but without details of where to look, she said, it's like searching for the needle in a haystack.
"I would like to hear from parents," she said.
Barr and Brown said they intend to keep the heat on Imagine, even though their children no longer attend, because they don't believe the school is working in the best interest of Pasco County or its children.
"It could be a great school," Barr said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.