TAMPA — In 2002, the Hillsborough County school district granted a woman named Loretta B. Anderson permission to open a public charter school.
The school would carry her family name: Anderson Elementary Academy.
But she didn't tell school officials that she had been arrested in 1990, accused of spending $4,500 in public money to pay off her credit card.
Anderson, the second-ranking official at the Tampa Housing Authority and a former assistant U.S. attorney, pleaded no contest to three felony counts of grand theft and two counts of forgery. Adjudication was withheld, and she was sentenced to three years' probation and disbarred.
But the school district never asked about her criminal record, and she didn't volunteer the information.
Several officials learned about Anderson's past when a fingerprint check came back positive in July 2003. But no action was taken. Absent a felony conviction, officials say, their hands were tied.
Today, the Anderson Academy stands on the verge of collapse. The district has recommended terminating its charter due to financial mismanagement and subpar academic performance. Teachers and vendors reported going unpaid this spring, and the school has fallen $35,000 behind on its rent.
Parent Antoi Casey pulled her children out of the academy last fall. "The school was in disarray," she said.
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Viewed from the outside, all seemed well at Anderson Academy last fall, said Jenna Hodgens, the district's charter school supervisor.
"In December they reported being $82,375 in the black," she said. "I'm thinking, how could they not be paying vendors and have that much money? But I started to think there was something wrong because I was getting all these phone calls."
In a recent report to the School Board, she said the school began slipping behind in food service payments to the district, at one point owing more than $8,000.
More money was tied up in a dispute with a vendor, and teachers notified the district on at least three occasions that they had not been paid, she said.
By last week, the school's landlord said the academy was five months behind on its rent.
Parents said they left the school because it had become chaotic, with high teacher turnover and scant attention to building maintenance.
"They got rid of around five teachers and they couldn't say why," said Casey, whose children attended the school for a few years. As it grew larger, it became disorganized, she said.
Jeanette Collins, the school's principal and Anderson's sister, said many families left because they lost jobs or housing in their impoverished central Tampa neighborhood — not because they were unhappy.
District figures show the school's enrollment was volatile, rising from 53 to 135 students from 2006 to 2008, before dropping to 124 in the 2008-09 school year.
That drop brought a financial sting, since every lost student meant less funding.
Federal 990 tax forms filed by the nonprofit Anderson Foundation Inc., which runs the school, show it took in $533,000 in public money in 2006-07 and $1.1 million the following year.
Expecting enrollment to grow, the school had hired additional teachers this year, said Anderson, director and chairwoman of the school's governing board.
But declining enrollment and state cutbacks reduced the school's revenues to $600,000, and the school failed to act quickly enough to cut its costs, she said.
"We were trying to maintain those teachers, too," Anderson said. "They needed jobs."
It was the first school Anderson or Collins had ever run, although both had taught and Collins had administrative experience.
But even as enrollment was on the verge of collapsing, Anderson's salary increased from $50,502 to $82,373 from 2007 to 2008, according to the 990 forms.
Anderson denied earning the higher figure and produced W-2 tax forms listing her 2008 income as $55,750.
When confronted with the disparity, she pointed to additional income of $12,625, part of a $150,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation. But that still left a difference of nearly $14,000 between the two tax forms, which she could not explain.
The sisters said they have not profited from the school, and in fact spent an inheritance to keep it running. Everything they did was for the students' benefit, they said.
"We haven't received any salaries," Anderson said, referring to recent months. "I don't have any money. Everything I have, I've given it to the school."
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Florida has been fertile ground in the national movement to grow charter schools, which are public but have more independence than regular schools. Last year, 117,000 students attended 389 charters in the state.
But that growth has brought problems, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted last week. "The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and third-rate operators to exist," he told the National Charter School Conference. "Charter authorizers need to do a better job of holding schools accountable, or people will, by leaving."
Under Florida law, school boards approve charter applications and monitor them but have little actual control over who works in them.
Hillsborough school officials say Anderson Elementary Academy's governing board was responsible for managing its performance.
"The expression of the Legislature was always that you don't interfere with those folks," said Hillsborough School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez. "In some places, the charters go to people who have no educational experience, and they go out and get a management company to do the instructional thing."
District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said three officials in 2003 — professional standards director Linda Kipley and two retired officials, charter school supervisor Charlene Pirko and chief academic officer Donny Evans — learned of Anderson's criminal history.
Still, no note was added to the school's file.
Anderson said officials should have known of her record since she had previously taught in the district and had already been fingerprinted.
But by last summer, when the school was granted a new five-year license, no one in the charter school office knew anything about Anderson's criminal record.
"Might people have made a different decision if they had different information?" Hegarty said. "That is entirely possible."
Officials described the failure to put Anderson's arrest information in the school's file as a significant lapse. Such knowledge might have prompted the district to monitor the school's finances more closely.
If the district had known about Anderson's arrest record at the beginning, Gonzalez said, school officials might have scrutinized the original application more closely and found a legal way to deny it.
"It's safe to assume they would have given more scrutiny," he said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.