With its finances in disarray and its students at a daily risk of falling behind, the ineptly administered and bankrupt Life Force Arts and Technology Academy charter school in Dunedin has become a community embarrassment that cannot be shut down soon enough. It should serve as a clarion call to Florida lawmakers to tighten up oversight of privately run schools that receive public money.
Parents from Clearwater's low-income North Greenwood neighborhood had enrolled their children in the kindergarten-through-fourth grade school on the promise that students would receive a good education and specialized classes in the arts and computer training. Instead, students were subjected to a curriculum with ties to the Church of Scientology, while administrators apparently padded their pockets and doled out sweetheart contracts to cronies.
As the Tampa Bay Times' Drew Harwell reported, while classrooms lacked basic supplies, recently sacked school manager Hanan Islam paid her own management company $70,000 between August 2011 and January of this year. Islam also spent nearly $3,000 on a mystery California accountant only known as "Pauline," who has never been seen at the school. And $30,000 of the school's $800,000 in public money was spent with Islam's World Literacy Crusade, a group that promotes Scientology's "study tech."
Though the school routinely deducted payroll taxes from its employees, Life Force is in arrears on its tax obligations by nearly $15,000. Law enforcement officials should be asking what happened to the money.
More recently, school principal Lenor Johnson discovered that computer passwords she needed in order to access the school's banking and financial records had mysteriously been changed.
The Pinellas County School Board, exercising the limited oversight granted by the Legislature, voted last month to terminate the charter school effective this summer. Good riddance. But the opportunities lost for the school's 58 remaining students won't be so easily rectified.
Legislative supporters of school choice expound on the ability of the charter movement to offer alternatives for public school students. But they also need to take responsibility and reform a system that allows bad actors to gain access to public funds with little immediate accountability. Taxpayers lose, but mostly students do.