DUNEDIN — Parents and teachers at the Life Force Arts and Technology Academy shouted down charter school leaders on Saturday for deceit and mismanagement they say has led to the school's demise.
A dozen parents and faculty members, including the principal, slammed the school's former management company at a meeting of the board of directors. They alleged questionable spending, suspect leadership and the sly introduction of Scientology study methods.
The furious group won a small victory Saturday when board members voted to keep the school open until June, when the Pinellas County School District's 90-day notice of termination comes due.
But the school that Art of Management leader Hanan Islam pledged she would rescue from bankruptcy remains troubled and deeply in debt. Parents worry the school's dramatic last days and their children's sudden move could cause their education to suffer.
Steve Hayes, a longtime Scientology attorney representing the school's board, told the group the school's Chapter 11 bankruptcy is set to end early next month. Without that protection, creditors could aggressively seek repayment of $400,000 in debt. At a meeting Friday, Hayes and school district leaders said they would seek the board's approval to close the school April 6.
But the closure would have sent Life Force's 60 remaining students scrambling to new classrooms with only two weeks' notice, and just 10 days before the crucial first day of FCAT testing. Shari Encke, a recently hired teacher for exceptional student education, said that was "like guaranteeing their failure."
Teachers and volunteers said their devotion to the children trumped their desire for pay. Board chairman Louis Muhammad and members Annie Tyrell and Fatima Talbird voted unanimously to keep the school open.
Class will stay in session without Islam, the executive director of the Scientology-tied World Literacy Crusade, who ended her management of Life Force this month.
Muhammad said Islam felt the school would be treated unfairly if she remained involved. But faculty of the school, pointing to its March budget, said her company left a day after receiving its last payment of nearly $7,000.
"Light was shone on their mismanagement, and now they're throwing us under the bus," said Nikki Mathis, a mother of three Life Force students.
Perhaps the strongest criticism of Islam's management came in a letter from principal Lenor Johnson, who wrote that decisions by school leaders "were made solely for the personal gain of outside interests."
Islam demanded hundreds of books on "study technology," a methodology devised by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, be purchased from the Church of Scientology at the school's expense, Johnson wrote. A rewrite of the school's charter led by Islam cost $18,000, and failed. Her company hired unqualified employees, implemented unapproved techniques in the classroom, held secret meetings with teachers and pressured faculty to write letters supporting her company's management.
"The education of our young children (was) compromised for personal gain, greed and the need to control others," Johnson wrote. "The re-opening of our school was nothing more than a business venture."
Teachers also slammed Muhammad, a Nation of Islam minister, alleging he served as a mouthpiece of Hanan Islam. Muhammad said he was hired by Islam in July as a "public relations consultant" but fired in October after he pushed a boy on the school bus. The boy was uninjured, and Muhammad said it was a light shove to bring the unruly boy in line. Hanan Islam appointed him to be board chairman in January.
Quanshawna Perry, whose son, Quante, was the child pushed, lashed out. "How can you end up on the board when you put your hands on a child?"
The two-hour shouting match in the school cafeteria, painted with murals of rainbows and clouds, ended with volunteers pushing to find sources of funding, faculty vowing to keep class in session, and parents confused over where their children would go next.
Parents said there was no confusion, though, over who was to blame for the school's impending closure.
"Y'all don't know what we've got on you," Konica Ritchie, a mother of two Life Force students who also helps with school lunches, told Muhammad. "You've messed with the wrong parents."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.