Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Opinion

Daniel Ruth: Tallahassee's school double standards

Do you think this probably falls under the category of — awkward?

Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, along with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, were in Orlando falling all over themselves in touting a school bill that further undermines the state's public education system while treating charter schools as if they were the enlightened second coming of Mr. Chips.

Corcoran even managed to wag a scornful finger (feel free to pick which digit) in the general direction of the Hillsborough County School District, which is in the midst of a daunting financial pinch, citing "bloat, inefficiency and gross overspending. Their problem is their management."

Consider yourself properly scolded, school superintendent Jeff Eakins.

But the timing of Scott's swooning over charter schools and Corcoran's sniping disdain for Hillsborough public education was at best a bit misplaced.

For in the wake of a education bill, cooked up in secret in Tallahassee, which among other things would require public school systems to share tax dollars with charters to cover maintenance and construction costs, arrest warrants were being filed in Escambia County against the owner of charter school operator Newpoint Education Partners and a business associate alleging the men conspired to divert public monies into their own pockets by using excessive markups for equipment and services and bogus invoices submitted by a web of interrelated companies.

In all, from 2007 to 2016 Newpoint Education Partners, run by Marcus Nelson May of Sarasota, received (you might want to sit down for this) $57 million to operate 15 charter schools in Florida, including six in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Steven Kunkemoeller of Cincinnati, owner of School Warehouse Inc., which supplied the charter schools, is suspected of providing kickbacks to May.

May is accused of charging Hillsborough Newpoint Tampa High $157,000 for computers that actually cost only $53,844. As well, May is accused of inflating student enrollment figures, which resulted in an overpayment in public monies of $350,000. At least $3.2 million allegedly went to pay for highly marked-up furniture and other equipment.

Investigators also allege May used school grant funds to pay off credit card debt, make mortgage payments and pay for his homeowner fees and his pool man, as well as $11,000 that covered the cost of vacations and plastic surgery.

Last year the company was indicted on charges of grand theft, money laundering and aggravated white-collar crime. Of the six Pinellas and Hillsborough Newpoint charter schools only one, Enterprise School in Clearwater, remains open after discreetly separating from Newpoint in 2015.

It is certainly true not all charter operations in Florida are as hinky as the Newpoint experience. But the allegations against May and Kunkemoeller serve as a cautionary tale about the shortcomings of Tallahassee's misguided love affair with charter schools.

Both Scott and Corcoran argue state education funds should "follow the student" rather than be dedicated to school districts, a view that critics say violates the Florida Constitution. But Corcoran hopes to finagle his way around messy stuff like the law by stacking the deck of the ongoing Constitution Revision Commission with fellow charter school travelers to clear the way for charters to capture more public education funding at the expense of traditional public schools.

What all this essentially leads to is a rigged education system, with unaccountable, vaguely transparent, privately owned and operated charter schools that get to pick and choose their student body populations receiving tax dollars that should be dedicated to improving traditional public schools. And all this is perpetuated in the rather disingenuous name of creating a competitive educational environment.

Forgive a pinch of facetiousness, but you could well argue that despite all their claims to being rock-ribbed, bedrock conservatives, both Scott and Corcoran are really closeted liberal socialists. How else to explain their zeal to use tax monies to underwrite private corporations that want to create charter schools on the public dole?

There is no doubt many of Florida's traditional public schools struggle with poor performance. What do you expect in a system where educators are expected to do more with less only to be blamed when things don't measure up?

This is the lesson to be learned when Tallahassee teaches a master class in double standards.

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