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Many charter schools lack money controls

ank Johnson admits he doesn't know much about running a business or keeping a ledger. That was a big reason he turned the business operations of his Port Richey charter school over to a parent who, at the time, seemed to know what he was doing.

A year later, that parent turned out to be a felon with a long rap sheet of fraud and credit card scams. Deerwood Academy, meanwhile, cannot account for nearly $96,000 in taxpayer money.

When asked Oct. 9 why he wasn't more involved in his school's business operations, Johnson replied: "None of us are great at business; we're not whizzes at business."

A new report issued last week by the state's Auditor General suggests that such shortcomings are common among Florida's charter schools. It found that roughly one in five of the charters it examined lacked adequate controls over spending, cash collections and financial records _ the same conditions that contributed to the suspected fraud at Deerwood.

"Generally, the people running charters are educators, not accountants" said Joe Williams, an audit manager with the Auditor General's office. "Consequently, (the business) side of the operation doesn't get the expertise it needs."

The report stated that a lack of such expertise increased the "possibility that errors or fraud might occur and not be detected."

Indeed, the St. Petersburg Times, not school officials, uncovered Deerwood's mismanagement and missing money.

Charters are public schools, and they receive tax money for operation, but they're operated independently of local school districts. Florida's first charter school opened in 1996. Since then, their growth has skyrocketed. The state Department of Education estimates there are 250 charters operating this year.

The problems highlighted in the Auditor General's report are to be expected of a reform movement that is only a few years old, Williams said, adding that none of the problems is insurmountable.

"All it requires is some old fashioned attention to bookkeeping," Williams said. "After all, it's money that makes these schools run."