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No severance for staff of Life Skills Center charter school in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

It hurt when students and teachers at Life Skills Center charter school learned their high school for struggling students would close June 30.

On Thursday, the news got worse.

In a heated meeting with two representatives from Ohio-based charter school company White Hat Management, the staff of 22 learned there would be no severance pay, no cushion to help them as they enter the world of the unemployed.

"If you have any kind of heart, it's something you should never do," said LaSilas Fisher, the school's assistant administrator. "Especially in an economy like this."

A frustrated Fisher then walked out of the meeting.

Others stayed behind, some yelling so loud Fisher said he could hear them from the other side of the closed door.

"I don't know how I'm going to pay for July's rent, July's bills, August's rent, August's bills," science teacher Victor Clack said afterward.

While two White Hat corporate representatives met with the principal, students continued to work at computer stations, trying to complete as many credits as possible before their last instructional day June 29.

Gary Minadeo, director of operational assessment for White Hat, declined to discuss the staff reports that the company was letting them go without additional compensation.

"That's a private issue between them and us," he said, referring the St. Petersburg Times to a corporate spokesperson.

In a statement e-mailed to the Times on Thursday, White Hat did not address the question of severance, but said the company wanted to keep the school open and placed the school's predicament on the shoulders of the Pinellas County School District:

"The district does not seem to care about the students, the Pinellas County citizens employed at the school, or the benefit to the Pinellas County economy of having high school graduates rather than high school dropouts," the statement said.

White Hat touts itself as the third-largest for-profit charter school company in the United States.

On Tuesday, the Pinellas School Board agreed not to renew the district's contract with Life Skills Center charter school, which is publicly funded but privately run and this past year had more than 300 students.

Superintendent Julie Janssen pointed to lackluster student participation and performance on the FCAT, a 12 percent graduation rate and poor attendance, among other things, for her recommendation to not renew the school's contract.

Board members also expressed doubts that Life Skills' board and White Hat shared the same commitment to improvement that students, parents and faculty members exhibited in their emotional appeals to the board to save the school.

The death knell: White Hat failed to turn in its copy of a negotiated contract sent to the company May 14 until the evening of June 14, more than a week past the deadline — and the night before Tuesday's School Board meeting.

"If I had known I was working for a company like this," Fisher said, "I would have jumped ship a long time ago."

White Hat, which has been targeting dropouts since its founding in 1998, has 50 schools in six states, including 36 Life Skills campuses — 10 in Florida.

Earlier this year, a Life Skills campus in Winter Haven narrowly escaped closure after Polk County officials found the company was not spending enough money in the classroom.

Another Life Skills in Lakeland was shuttered in 2009 after board members voted not to renew its charter, concerned about its low graduation rate. An investigation there also found that the school inflated its attendance numbers and received $101,000 from the state for students it didn't have.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

What School Board members had to say

Pinellas County School Board members heard more than an hour of appeals from students, teachers and parents on Tuesday to keep Life Skills open. None of the board members said their decision to close the school after five years was easy. The vote to not renew a contract with Life Skills was 5-2, with Mary Brown and Linda Lerner dissenting.

Robin Wikle: "I fell in love with your success stories. There's no doubt in my mind you believe in your school. There's no doubt you want to teach the kids what's right. … What there's a doubt in my mind is the accountability on the board of directors."

Carol Cook: "The students that are here today are those 12 percent success rate. They're the ones we really have been able to meet their needs. (Pause.) A 40 percent attendance? Not good. I have got some real concerns."

Nina Hayden: "I wish I could put the passion I see in many of the teachers and students into the leadership. And the management is deplorable."

Peggy O'Shea: "Five years should be long enough to show that success."

Janet Clark: "This is hard. Because I know every student who spoke today has had their needs met. … A 12 percent graduation rate is not acceptable. And the other thing that's not acceptable is how often your goals were not met."

Mary Brown: "I see this in two parts. I see your management company and I see your school. … White Hat Management Co. has failed you. And your board has failed you in not holding White Hat Management responsible."

Linda Lerner: "I believe there's a good chance the school can pull together and do it."

No severance for staff of Life Skills Center charter school in St. Petersburg 06/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 18, 2010 6:26pm]

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