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Charter school's request for money stirs concern

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Several Hillsborough County parents are raising questions about a $500 annual "contribution" being sought by a popular charter school.

Officials at Trinity Charter School sent a letter to parents June 23 asking for a $500 "annual enhancement contribution" per child.

The letter, signed by school principal Madeline M. O'Dea and former Trinity board president Simon Canasi, said the money would help complete a media center, production studio and science labs, provide technology and underwrite added staff and staff development.

Charter schools are run by private agencies and funded with public money. They are forbidden from charging tuition and fees, other than those normally charged in public schools for such items as supplies and rental fees. Charter schools that violate state law can lose their contracts.

The letter said, "charter schools are obliged to lean on the personal commitment and financial support of all our families."

Included in the mailing was a "collection schedule" form, giving parents the option of a "suggested contribution" of $500 as a lump sum payment, "due by Aug. 1." It also gave two options for paying by installments.

It notes that the contribution is tax deductible and asks that the form indicating the method of payment be returned to the school by Aug. 1.

The letter to parents said, "If this is a hardship for your family, please contact us."

Hillsborough's charter schools liaison Charlene Pirko said several Trinity parents have contacted the Hillsborough County school district about the solicitation. She said it appeared the enhancement contribution is voluntary.

In a letter to O'Dea, Pirko said: "Although this recommended assessment is not required, it was felt by those parents who called that families who did not participate would be stigmatized."

The letter also pointed out the state law, and asked that O'Dea make sure the school complies.

Pirko sent the school's solicitation letter to the Department of Education for its review.

Crosby Few, attorney for the Hillsborough County School Board, said he had not reviewed Trinity's letter. He said charter schools are entitled to raise funds through voluntary donations, but state law makes it clear fees are illegal.

"Most of them solicit donations," Few said. "If it's mandatory, that's a charge."

Canasi said school officials "emphatically" explained to parents that the contribution was voluntary. He said Trinity officials were aware they could not impose fees. The request that parents contact school officials if they cannot afford an annual $500 per child was merely an effort to eliminate misunderstandings, he said.

"We don't want you to read the letter and make the assumption that if I don't have the money, my children can't come to school," said Canasi, now a member of the school's advisory board.

Trinity wants to cut back on fundraisers while continuing to raise money the school needs, Canasi said, and asking for donations directly seemed the best way to do so.

Trinity School for Children has 580 students in its elementary and middle schools combined. It moved to its current location on Osborne Avenue in 2001, several years after renting space from a Baptist church.

Trinity's curriculum is called Bank Street, after the New York school that started it. Students go on frequent field trips and are often given group assignments to foster cooperation.

The school received an A from the state last year, which means it will get a $100 bonus per child.

Kara Busler is a Trinity parent who is delighted with her children's education. But with four children attending the school, her total enhancement contribution comes to $2,000 a year. That's not an amount she can shrug off, she said.

"I have mixed feelings and thought long and hard about it, but we will continue to do our best to support the school," she said.

Donnie Evans, chief academic officer for the Hillsborough school district, said his office received e-mails from two parents concerned about Trinity's policy.

Canasi put the complaints down to "sour grapes" from disgruntled parents of former students.

"Are you at liberty to tell me who reported this to the School Board?" he asked in a phone interview Tuesday.

Canasi said school administrators have the best intentions, and that running a top-notch school requires funds.

"We're trying to give children a great education and it doesn't come free," Canasi said. "There's only so much fundraising we can do."