Thursday, November 23, 2017
Education

Pinellas cites 'deteriorating' finances at three charter schools

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Three Pinellas County charter schools run by the same management company have been found to be in "deteriorating financial condition," according to school district documents.

Rick Wolfe, the district's director of charter schools and home education, has sent letters to the Florida Department of Education describing six-figure deficits at Windsor Preparatory Academy in St. Petersburg and two schools in a Clearwater shopping mall — Newpoint Pinellas Academy and Newpoint Pinellas High. Together they enroll more than 700 children and receive $4.5 million in public funding.

All three are managed by Newpoint Education Partners. The company's president Eileen Quinlan did not respond to requests for comment.

Windsor Prep, the largest of the schools, received an additional letter listing seven concerns from parents and district officials. Among them: inadequate curriculum, inventory inaccuracies, high teacher turnover and more than $300,000 in "unsubstantiated consulting fees."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Charter school company Newpoint hits another snag in Pinellas

Wolfe told the school's governing board to send him a written response to the concerns by March 11.

In similar letters, Wolfe told the schools' boards they have until April 5 to work with the district to develop a "corrective action plan" and file it with the state, otherwise the state will determine a plan.

After that, under state law, the boards will have one year to implement the plan and correct the problems. If that doesn't happen, the district could decide to terminate or not renew a school's charter.

"They need to submit a plan that our finance people would feel comfortable with," Wolfe said.

The state established charter schools as a way to spark innovation in education. Like traditional public schools, they receive tax money. But they are privately managed, with only some oversight by school districts.

The balance sheet for Windsor Prep, which has 563 students in kindergarten through grade five, shows a deficit of $991,600 in 2015, up from $617,395 the year before, according to an independent audit completed in June. The school received $3.7 million in public funding, the school's main source of income.

Meanwhile, Newpoint Pinellas Academy's deficit grew to nearly $300,000 in 2015 as enrollment remained stagnant. The school has 92 students in sixth through eighth grades and brought in $515,376 in public funding last year.

Windsor Prep and Newpoint Pinellas Academy share the same board, chaired by Robert Pergolizzi. He said his board is working on a plan that will be submitted by the deadline.

"I believe some of the concerns are unfounded," Pergolizzi said in reference to the seven outlined concerns at Windsor Prep. He declined to be more specific and said the details will be in a letter to Wolfe.

The next board meeting for those schools will be held at Windsor Prep on March 17 at 5:15 p.m.

Newpoint Pinellas High, which also suffers from a low enrollment of 80 students, reported a $468,057 deficit and owed its management company $498,616 in loans as of June 30, the end of its last fiscal year. The high school received $342,890 in public funding.

The school's board, chaired by Jack Eichert, is contemplating a separation from Newpoint Education Partners in light of the school's financial troubles. In January, the school opted out of an agreement to automatically renew its contract with the company.

Eichert declined to comment but said he is in talks with Newpoint. He said he will call a board meeting "in the very near future."

Newpoint Education Partners has a history of school closures and financial red flags. The company failed to account for a $75,000 federal grant in November and had to reimburse the Pinellas school district. In addition, the Florida Department of Education is investigating Newpoint for improperly moving grant-funded resources among its schools.

The fourth Newpoint-managed school in Pinellas, East Windsor Middle Academy, did not receive a letter about its finances. An audit from June showed the school had $3,993 in net assets after its first year of operation. However, Wolfe said it is being monitored by the district because it is "demonstrating a pattern similar to other schools."

East Windsor has 180 students in sixth through eighth grades and is on the same site as Windsor Prep in St. Petersburg.

Dorothy Dulau enrolled her son in kindergarten at Windsor Prep in August because she knew someone working at the school. She said that friend is no longer there and she has entered her son into the district's magnet school lottery for the 2016-17 school year.

"We thought we were staying there until eighth grade," said Dulau, 35, of St. Petersburg, who isn't sure if her son will return to Windsor Prep. "As far as the board, I don't believe anything they say. I don't trust them. They need to go, and Newpoint needs to go."

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.

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