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Tampa charter school loses $64,000 for enrolling underage students

TAMPA — Twenty-two children were removed from kindergarten this week after school district officials discovered they were too young to be enrolled in their public charter school.

Now that school, A.T. Jones Academy, stands to lose more than $64,000 in state and local funding to make up for the error.

"It was a mistake the principal made at the school," said Hillsborough County charter schools supervisor Jenna Hodgens. "The mistake was caught."

The situation came to light after principal Brenda Kearse sought help from the district for a student with behavior problems. When officials learned the student's age — 4 years old, despite a state law setting the minimum age for public school at 5 by Sept. 1 — they checked and found 21 more.

In a letter Tuesday, Hodgens said the school's twice-monthly funding would be cut by $9,180 through June unless there are other enrollment changes.

"As previously instructed, please immediately withdraw each of the students currently enrolled at your school who do not meet the age requirements," she told the school.

And though such an error could potentially jeopardize the new school's license to operate in the district, Hodgens said she didn't expect the School Board to take further action.

"If they didn't follow through, then I think it would be something we would pursue further," Hodgens said. "People make mistakes. Especially first-year schools."

Kearse told Bay News 9 that she misinterpreted state law.

But parent Chavonda Mosley said the principal knew she was taking a risk in enrolling students like her daughter, Destini, who missed the legal cutoff by seven days. "We were told this is kind of an unconventional thing, but we're going to test the water," Mosley said.

Another charter school, Hand in Hand Academy in Lutz, has agreed to enroll all 22 students in a state-funded voluntary pre-kindergarten class through the end of the year.

School district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the principal and the charter's board should have known better.

"Charter schools have autonomy," she said. "It is their responsibility to follow the law."

Information from Bay News 9 was used in this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Tampa charter school loses $64,000 for enrolling underage students 03/22/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 8:26am]

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