Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 [email protected]

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

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Dirk Koetter to Bucs: Take your complaints to someone who can help


    TAMPA — It was just another day of aching bellies at One Save Face.

    Dirk Koetter: “All of our issues are self-inflicted right now.”
  2. Seminole Heights murders: fear and warnings, but no answers


    TAMPA — Interim Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan elicited loud gasps from the crowd of about 400 who showed up at Edison Elementary School on Monday night to learn more about the string of unsolved killings that have left the southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood gripped by fear.

    Kimberly Overman, left, comforts Angelique Dupree, center, as she spoke about the death of her nephew Benjamin Mitchell, 22, last week in Seminole Heights. The Tampa Police Department held a town hall meeting Monday night where concerned residents hoped to learn more about the investigation into the three shooting deaths over 11 days in southeast Seminole Heights. But police could give the crowd at Edison Elementary School few answers. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  3. Juvenile justice reform seen as help for teen car theft problem


    ST. PETERSBURG — One of Tampa Bay's largest religious organizations has decided to make reforming the juvenile justice system one of its top priorities for next year.

    One of Tampa Bay's largest religious organizations, Faith & Action for Strength Together (FAST), voted Monday night to make reforming the juvenile justice system one of its top priorities for next year. FAST believes civil citations could help Pinellas County?€™s teen car theft epidemic by keeping children out of the juvenile justice system for minor offenses. [ZACHARY T. SAMPSON  |  Times]
  4. U.S. general lays out Niger attack details; questions remain (w/video)


    WASHINGTON — The U.S. Special Forces unit ambushed by Islamic militants in Niger didn't call for help until an hour into their first contact with the enemy, the top U.S. general said Monday, as he tried to clear up some of the murky details of the assault that killed four American troops and has triggered a nasty …

    Gen. Joseph Dunford said much is still unclear about the ambush.
  5. Trump awards Medal of Honor to Vietnam-era Army medic (w/video)


    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Monday turned a Medal of Honor ceremony for a Vietnam-era Army medic who risked his life to help wounded comrades into a mini homework tutorial for the boy and girl who came to watch their grandfather be enshrined "into the history of our nation."

    WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 23:  Retired U.S. Army Capt. Gary Rose (L) receives a standing ovation after being awarded the Medal of Honor by U.S. President Donald Trump during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House October 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. Rose, 69, is being recognized for risking his life while serving as a medic with the 5th Special Force Group and the Military Assistance Command Studies and Observations Group during ‘Operation Tailwind’ in September 1970. Ignoring his own injuries, Rose helped treat 50 soldiers over four days when his unit joined local fighters to attack North Vietnamese forces in Laos - officially off limits for combat at the time.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) 775062921