BY ALLI LANGLEY
Susan Latvala believes in charter schools.
The Pinellas County commissioner and former School Board member has a hand in three of them.
One, Academie Da Vinci Charter School for the Arts, a Dunedin elementary, is thriving and plans to double in size this year.
But the other two, facing academic and financial problems, are now trying to cut ties with the for-profit management company hired to run them.
"The relationship was broken," said Latvala, who is the chairwoman of the local nonprofit board that oversees Mavericks in Education high schools in St. Petersburg and Largo.
A switch by Mavericks to a new online curriculum at the nine charter schools it runs in Florida triggered the split. Pinellas school officials declared it did not meet state standards.
The local board was shocked, Latvala said. "We trusted them," she said.
Latvala is negotiating the transition with Mavericks chief executive Lauren Hollander, who did not return calls or emails for comment.
But, Latvala said, "it's in the best interests of the schools to move on."
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Every Florida charter school is required to have a local nonprofit board governing it. Sometimes those boards hire for-profit management companies to run the schools, sometimes the company recruits board members.
Splits like those the Mavericks schools are going through are uncommon but not rare, said Todd Ziebarth, vice president for state advocacy with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
And a split isn't necessarily a bad sign, he said. It indicates the school isn't getting the results it wants. And for charter schools, results are what matters.
"No model, whether it's the charter model or the traditional model, is going to be free and clear," he said.
When Latvala created the local board for the Mavericks schools, she said, "I was thrilled to be a part of it." The two Pinellas high schools reported about 850 students enrolled last school year.
Mavericks in Education Florida targets high school students, ages 15 to 21, who have dropped out or been kicked out, teens juggling a baby or a job, young adults who would otherwise be in jail.
Students attend the schools in four-hour blocks and take online courses. The idea is for students to learn at their own pace, Latvala said.
But the change in curriculum seemed focused "on getting kids to earn credits quicker," she said. The district review found that Mavericks told teachers to reduce assignments and assign grades based on their judgment instead of course completion.
Teachers "didn't like it from day one," Latvala said.
Last year, 10 of Pinellas' 17 charter schools were managed by for-profit companies. Their performance ranged from the A's earned by several Plato Academy K-8 schools to the F grades given to the Imagine schools, an elementary and middle school in St. Petersburg. Recently, the Pinellas County School Board gave Imagine another chance to improve despite a recommendation by the superintendent to close the elementary.
Pinellas has already closed two other charter schools, including the Life Skills Center — a school Latvala helped found in 2005. The school, which officials said failed to meet state academic requirements, also focused on struggling high school students.
"We've saved a lot of kids," Latvala said.
But she left Life Skills in 2008 because she thought White Hat, the for-profit management company running the school, had too much control. The school district shut down Life Skills in 2010 despite pleas from students.
Last year, the St. Petersburg Mavericks high school opened in the same spot on Central Avenue that was home to Life Skills.
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The Mavericks schools are projected to receive more than $2 million of taxpayer money next year. Charter schools receive funding based on enrollment, like traditional public schools, except the district takes 5 percent for administrative services.
Both Mavericks schools have struggled financially. The Largo one has been on a corrective action plan since January after its fund balance was in the negatives for a few months, said Dot Clark, coordinator for the district's charter schools. School officials are reviewing the St. Pete school's finances.
Latvala thinks Florida should join a handful of states that ban for-profit management companies from running charter schools.
"A lot of money goes to the for-profit management company," she said, "and that money should go to the classroom."
Latvala said she expects Mavericks will be out of the picture within a year with one exception: The schools' leases don't end for a couple years. Still, she said the company has agreed to at least reduce its management fees and the rent at the St. Petersburg school.
She said each school paid $350,000 a year in rent, even though the St. Petersburg property needed little work before it opened compared with Largo. For now, Mavericks still controls most of the operations for both schools, she said. But the board has more power over personnel and plans to hire a company to take over tasks like accounting and payroll.
Cheri Shannon knows what Mavericks is going through. She sat on a board that severed ties with its management company — a process that took "a year and a half of legal wrangling."
Schools have procedures and infrastructure needs that are important for boards to keep as they cut ties before striking out on their own, said Shannon, chief executive of Florida Charter School Alliance.
"If you don't have that in place before you get the divorce the school might not be as successful," she said.
District officials are watching how the split plays out. "We're very concerned as to the outcome," Clark said.
Among all the district's charters, she said, she doesn't see a correlation between performance and whether schools are run by a for-profit company.
However, she has noticed that many of the successful charters have local nonprofit boards that actively run the schools. Pinellas school officials said they plan to make a suggestion to local boards who want to start a new charter school: Have a lawyer review any agreement with a management company to ensure control is in the right hands.
Because what can make or break a charter school, Clark said, is "who's really running the school."
Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report.
|Pinellas County charter schools and their management companies|
|School||City||Management company||Enrollment, grades 11-12||School grade|
|Imagine Elementary||St. Petersburg||Imagine Schools||250||F|
|Imagine Middle||St. Petersburg||Imagine Schools||129||F|
|Mavericks N (at-risk high schoolers)||Largo||Mavericks in Education||451||Incomplete (not enough students tested in FCAT)|
|Mavericks S, at-risk high school students||St. Petersburg||Mavericks in Education||390||New|
|NewStar, at-risk high school students||Clearwater||Newpoint Education Partners||288||Incomplete (not enough students tested in FCAT)|
|Newpoint Prep, at-risk high school students||Clearwater||Newpoint Education Partners||84||C|
|Plato Academy, K-8||Clearwater||Superior Management||342||A|
|Plato Academy N, K-8||Palm Harbor||Superior Management||276||A|
|Plato Academy S, K-8||Largo||Superior Management||276||A|
|Plato Academy, K-8||Seminole||Superior Management||144||A|
|MYcroSchool||St. Petersburg||SIATech (agreement pending)||Scheduled to open this year|
|Pinellas Academy of Math and Science||Largo||Charter School Associates||Scheduled to open this year|
|Plato Academy||Tarpon Springs||Superior Management||Scheduled to open this year|