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School Board wary of Hernando County charter school proposal

BROOKSVILLE — They support the mission, but aren't sure about the team stepping forward to carry it out.

That was the bottom line Tuesday as members of the Hernando County School Board weighed an application to open a charter school for high school dropouts or at-risk students. Several members voiced concerns about allowing the for-profit Mavericks in Education to use public funding without fully disclosing its own financial picture.

"We're public, our books are entirely open," said member Dianne Bonfield. "Yours aren't."

Mark Thimmig, the company's chief executive and president, came to the meeting in person Tuesday after a district panel recommended denying the application to open a school for 350 students on Ponce de Leon Boulevard.

He said his privately held company wouldn't put its records within the public domain. But he told the board it was on a solid, debt-free footing.

"As a matter of fact, we don't owe a dime on our copy machine," Thimmig said. "We have considerable cash in the bank."

If approved, the school would be overseen by a local governing board. The district has questioned whether that board would have true control over the school's finances. But Thimmig said the board would exercise full control over the budget, and his company wouldn't see a profit for at least four years.

That local board was chaired until recently by Diane Rowden, but she told the St. Petersburg Times she has resigned in order to spend more time in her primary role as a county commissioner.

Other board members include Linda Prescott, an administrator at Hillsborough Community College, and Patricia Colbert, a former guidance counselor at Hernando High.

Much of the Tuesday meeting was devoted to a point-by-point discussion of the district's reasons for recommending a denial, and the company's rebuttal of those reasons.

Thimmig said the Fort Lauderdale company had not double-booked the value of $250,000 in state grants in its budget, as the district alleged. And the district was incorrect in saying the school would hire only first-year teachers, he said, when there was money in the budget for a more experienced staff.

He said the district was also wrong to assume the school couldn't attract sufficient numbers of students to be financially viable. He promised to quickly conduct surveys to gauge interest, and show how the school could operate with fewer students.

"If anything, I think the startup budget we've presented is more than necessary to meet the needs of the school," Thimmig said. "Fundamentally, you have to trust us, and we have to trust you. We care about creating opportunities for kids."

To keep costs low, he said, the company would postpone as many expenditures as possible — including the hiring of most staff members — until the month before the anticipated August 2009 opening. That drew a rebuke from board chairwoman Sandra Nicholson.

"You're going to get all this equipment and get everything running in a month?" she asked. "Good luck."

Board member Pat Fagan said he was a strong supporter of charter schools, pointing to the success of the district's first such venture, Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology.

"I just wish (Mavericks) was more from the Hernando County area, and was overseen by management from the area," he added. "You need to prove to us that you're for real. That you're not going to come into this community and give up on it in a short time."

The School Board plans to take a final vote on the charter application at its Nov. 4 meeting.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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The School Board plans to take a final vote on the charter application at its Nov. 4 meeting.

School Board wary of Hernando County charter school proposal 10/21/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2008 7:04pm]

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