Sunday, January 21, 2018
Education

Pinellas School Board approves notice of termination for Life Force charter school

LARGO — The clock is ticking for the Life Force Arts and Technology Academy, the charter elementary school teaching study methods embraced by the Church of Scientology.

The Pinellas County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to issue the Dunedin school a 90-day notice of termination, meaning it could close this summer at the end of its third school year.

Superintendent John Stewart accused the school of changing its curriculum "without permission" from the district, among a host of other concerns. Board member Linda Lerner said there was "overwhelming evidence to terminate."

Acting on Stewart's recommendation, the board also voted to deny a proposed amendment that would have extended the school's charter for another three years and granted sweeping changes to its budget, curriculum and leadership structure.

School leaders still have the right to request a public hearing to defend the charter.

The School Board will need to vote again to finalize the termination within 90 days. School Board attorneys will also need permission from a bankruptcy judge to close the school, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July and was granted court protection during its reorganization.

In 15 years of Pinellas charter school operations, the School Board has never terminated a school's charter. Charter schools receive tax funding but are operated by their own independent boards of directors.

The Tampa Bay Times reported last month that administrators at Life Force, which earns about $800,000 in public fundsx a year, compelled students to learn "study technology," a methodology devised by Scientology's late founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Students at the public charter school advertised as the SMART Academy were also taken on a field trip to a Scientology church in Ybor City. More than $30,000 in school funds has been given to the World Literacy Crusade, a California-based group that promotes Hubbard's "study tech."

Messages left with Life Force board chairman Louis Muhammad, the school's management company, Art of Management, and the company's president, Hanan Islam, were not returned Tuesday.

The question now is where Life Force's 95 students, many of whom live in Clearwater's low-income North Greenwood neighborhood, will enroll next year. Bonnie Harvin, whose daughter, Cabraya, attends fifth-grade classes at Life Force, told the School Board Tuesday she worried about her daughter's chances of finding a good school.

She said discussion of Life Force had centered on its administration without focusing enough on what parents should do for re-enrollment.

"If it needs to be closed down, they should close it down," Harvin said after the meeting. "But where do the parents go now? Where do we place our kids?"

Dee Burns, the district's director of student assignment, said outgoing Life Force students would be placed in their zoned public school unless parents filled out a special assignment request. Those requests, which allow enrollment outside of zoning based on available space, will begin April 9.

Parents can also submit late applications to special programs, like career academies and fundamental and magnet schools, beginning this week. Late applicants are added to the bottom of the school's waiting list, which, for high-demand elementary schools, can be lengthy.

Sarah Parker, a first-grade teacher hired at the school in August, defended school administrators paying teachers substitute-teacher rates of $85 a day, saying, "I'm happy with it. I'm able to make ends meet."

She also defended the school's use of "study tech" and Scientology's involvement in the school, saying Scientology donations of rugs and furniture had helped the school when no one else would.

Outside the meeting, Parker said Islam and her company "have done wonders" in the school, and she criticized former teachers who spoke out against its management and curriculum.

Saying "quite a few students" had already been removed from the school, Parker mourned what could be the end of Life Force — and her job.

"I'm a first-grade teacher," Parker said. "Where am I going to go?"

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

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