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Pinellas officials: Charter school jeopardized student safety, misled district about buses

ST. PETERSBURG — A brand new charter school beset with management issues, staff defections and student withdrawals also jeopardized student safety this year while keeping key information from the Pinellas school system, district officials say.

Against the district's orders and without its knowledge, University Preparatory Academy hired an unauthorized private bus company to transport students to and from the school — a decision made worse when one of the company's buses crashed in September with more than a dozen of the school's students aboard. Three children were injured.

University Prep's actions brought a strong reaction from district officials, who expressed alarm and demanded more honesty from the school in the future.

Although charter schools are independent, they operate with public money and with some oversight from school districts.

Dot Clark, the district administrator who coordinates charter schools, told University Prep not to use Assured Transportation because the Bradenton-based company could not provide state-required documentation of driver training or safety inspections.

"Doing so would not only jeopardize the safety of the students, but would also bring University Prep out-of-compliance with its charter," Clark wrote in an Aug. 16 email.

Cheri Shannon, the school's founder and principal, agreed, and University Prep did not initially provide bus transportation.

The district was not aware that University Prep began using school buses until learning about the Sept. 9 accident, Clark said.

Assured Transportation submitted paperwork to the district before the accident, but the transportation department had not finished verifying the application and had not approved the company to transport students.

The school bus driver for Assured was cited for careless driving after she failed to yield the right of way and was struck by a red Pontiac Sunfire at 62nd Avenue S and Seventh Street.

Thirteen children ranging in age from 7 to 13 were aboard the bus, and three reported minor injuries. Angela Brown said her 11-year-old daughter, Mikayla, suffered a concussion and missed school for a week. She said the girl was afraid to ride in her car for a while.

In a Sept. 18 letter to the University Prep governing board, Clark reiterated promises made by Shannon to not use Assured.

"District staff were alarmed to hear that students were being transported on buses owned and operated by a company the school had previously agreed not to use until such time as they received approval," she wrote.

Clark went on to say that the district "has taken note of this issue and expects that the school will not only maintain strict compliance with all safety rules, including without limitation transportation, but also be forthright and honest in all of its dealings with the district in the future."

On Wednesday, Clark said she felt as though Shannon had lied to the district. When asked whether she could trust University Prep in the future, Clark said, "I don't know."

Craig Sher, the only member of the University Prep governing board who lives in Pinellas County, said he never saw the letter. Although addressed to the governing board, Clark sent it to the school, her only point of contact.

Shannon did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

According to Clark, Shannon committed to waiting until Assured addressed its problems and was approved by Pinellas. After the accident, Shannon told her that Assured had called the school and said they had met the district's requirements. Karen O'Brien, who identified herself as the owner of Assured, confirmed that she called University Prep and submitted an application to the school district.

But officials say the burden was on University Prep to wait for approval from the district, as they had discussed several times.

"We cannot compromise safety for convenience," superintendent Michael Grego said Wednesday. "We have to understand that. . . . We're not the enemy. We're partners in this. But we're also in charge of this, too."

After the accident, University Prep began using A & S Transportation, an approved company. The district had no reason to complete Assured's application and set it aside.

Less than two months old, University Prep has had a variety of issues with its opening. The local advisory board described in its charter was never created. When the Tampa Bay Times told Clark about this, she contacted Shannon, who promised to begin organizing the board.

Goliath Davis and Ricardo Davis, both activists who worked with Shannon to garner community support, say they have been shut out by Shannon since the charter was approved. Shannon has denied that claim.

Shannon, who heads University Prep's nonprofit parent, unexpectedly became the school's principal as time ran short to get it up and running. The governing board has not formally met in months. Most of its members live in South Florida.

By the end of last week, 77 students had withdrawn from University Prep, where total enrollment fluctuates between 400 and 500 students. They returned to the floundering neighborhood schools they had come from. Bay Point Middle and John Hopkins Middle received the majority of the older students from the K-8 school, while the younger children returned to Maximo, Melrose, Gulfport, Campbell Park and other elementaries.

Clark said the district has no cause to get involved because the charter school, which had a long waiting list, keeps replenishing its student body.

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com.

Pinellas officials: Charter school jeopardized student safety, misled district about buses 10/16/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 17, 2013 12:39am]
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