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Pinellas charter school failed to document grant spending, officials say

The Pinellas County School District says a St. Petersburg charter school has failed to document how it spent a $75,000 federal grant and is demanding the school return the money or account for it.

The Florida Department of Education awarded the grant to East Windsor Middle Academy in December 2014 from the Charter Schools Program, which helps cover opening costs for charter schools.

When the district asked the school in September to document how it had spent the grant, it received no response. Now, in a letter to East Windsor's principal Veronica Fly, the district is telling the school to reimburse the funds.

Though the money came from the federal government and is administered by the state, district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said responsibility for keeping track of it falls with the district as the sponsor of the charter school. East Windsor is owned and operated by Newpoint Education Partners, which operates four other schools in Pinellas with enrollments totaling 1,335.

Eileen Quinlan, Newpoint's executive director of operations, sent an email late Wednesday to the district after the Tampa Bay Times contacted the company. She blamed the delay on "difficulty getting the required information," and said the district will receive a complete expenditure report by Nov. 15.

This isn't the first problem at the school, which has an enrollment of 200 students this year. East Windsor had a rough debut last year after it turned away students days before the start of school because construction was yet to be completed on its facility.

In a related matter, the state is investigating Newpoint for improperly moving grant-funded resources among its schools. The state says it visited three now-closed Newpoint-run charter schools in Escambia County and found at least 80 items that were purchased with Charter Schools Program grant money awarded to schools in other districts, including Pinellas.

According to a June 16 email to Newpoint from Adam Emerson, the state's charter schools director, state and local officials found 65 tables, computers and monitors purchased for a Newpoint school in nearby Bay County, 12 tables purchased by Newpoint in Pinellas and three monitors from a Newpoint-managed school in Broward County, which is now closed.

Emerson wrote that this violates Charter Schools Program grant requirements, which say the money can be spent only at the schools that were awarded those funds.

It is unclear whether grant money from East Windsor Middle Academy was used to purchase items for Newpoint-managed schools in Escambia County. However, Emerson said in his email that state officials visited East Windsor and its neighboring Windsor Preparatory Academy as part of its investigation. According to the state, Newpoint's other schools in Pinellas are: Newpoint Pinellas Academy, Newpoint Charter School and Enterprise Charter High School.

Emerson also said the state learned that Newpoint was planning on returning the items found in Escambia County to their respective schools and warned the company not to go through with that plan.

"Until we know more about why these items moved across district lines, we want that property to remain at its current location," he wrote.

The state has since ceased all processing of any active Charter School Program grants for Newpoint and its affiliates. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education said Newpoint is cooperating with the state investigation.

Quinlan said Newpoint was aware that purchased materials cannot be transferred between schools.

"School-level employees with good intentions were responsible for the transfer of materials," she wrote in an email to the Times, calling it an isolated incident. "We have since taken action to ensure that does not happen in the future."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

Pinellas charter school failed to document grant spending, officials say 11/04/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2015 10:40pm]
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