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  1. Education

Plato Academy charter schools in turmoil over management, family feud

One of the largest charter school operators in the Tampa Bay area cut ties with its management company this month, amid legal action that could affect the future of nine schools.

Court filings detail a tumultuous relationship between management company Superior Schools and the governing board for Plato Academy, which enrolls more than 3,000 students at campuses in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. The Plato board fired Superior on April 15.

One of the actions, a lawsuit filed against Plato by Superior, requests time to give the management company a chance to remedy the Plato board's concerns. Another action, a petition, alleges Superior's CEO has disrupted the company since taking over less than a year ago.

Meanwhile, construction has been halted at two schools in St. Petersburg and Trinity, while plans for two additional schools in Pasco have been delayed or withdrawn. Parents, students and school districts are left to wonder what will happen next.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Plato Academy severs ties with management company

It appears problems between Plato and Superior started last summer, soon after the sudden death of Superior's founder and CEO Steve Christopoulos on June 27 at age 59. His ex-wife, Jenny Tsantilas, filed paperwork with the state to take over the company nine days later, Florida Division of Corporation records show.

She began firing key managers at Superior the next week, according to a petition filed in Pinellas County probate court by Christopoulos' mother, Georgia Christopoulos. It asks a judge to remove Tsantilas, who divorced Christopoulos in 2008, from overseeing his $80 million estate.

Tsantilas was named curator of the estate July 11, the petition states. Two daughters she shared with Steve Christopoulos nominated her to manage it because their father did not have a signed will.

"Virtually all of (Christopoulos') friends, family and colleagues can verify that (he) disliked and distrusted Tsantilas," the petition says. "Tsantilas lacks the necessary qualities and characteristics to serve as personal representative and is not qualified by temperament, education or training to administer the estate."

Tsantilas declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the lawsuit she filed against Plato on behalf of Superior. That lawsuit describes her relationship with Steve Christopoulos as "conflict-free," in contrast to the situation described by her former mother-in-law in probate court.

"Jenny started off with Steve … building Plato Academy from its infancy into what it is today," Tsantilas' attorney David Luikart said in an interview Tuesday. "I would say she is, and always has been, perfectly aligned with his vision."

Luikart said he does not know what Tsantilas' title or job was at Superior before she assumed Christopoulos' role last year, but he said she worked closely with her ex-husband until his death. And then she "worked night and day" to address the Plato board's concerns afterward.

Board meeting minutes show Plato officials first addressed concerns about Tsantilis when she did not show up to a meeting July 31. About that time, pressure was building around the opening of Plato's newest school in Trinity, which did not happen in time for the start of school this year.

RELATED: Plato Academy Trinity to start classes in alternate site while waiting for new building

On Aug. 10, board members discussed a letter from Hillsborough County schools' charter office that threatened closure of Plato Academy in Tampa because of issues related to management.

There is "no distinction or separation of Plato Academy Schools Corporation from Superior Schools Corporation," the letter said. "Accordingly, there is no arm's length relationship between the non-profit board and the management company."

Also on Aug. 10, the Plato board unanimously voted to reduce the amount of money Plato pays Superior by 2 percent, though there is little explanation about the decision in meeting minutes. Chairman Elias Kolettis did not respond to an email and two phone calls for comment Tuesday.

Luikart, the attorney representing Tasntilas, said even if there were signs the board was unhappy with Superior, the contract between the entities states that Plato should have given the company formal notice before terminating the partnership.

Furthermore, the board's claim that Superior's performance has declined since Christopoulos' death isn't true, he said. The waiting list for Plato schools alone proves the management company was doing a good job.

"It was a great operation that was on an upward trajectory and it's continued on that trajectory," Luikart said. Tsantilas "took an enterprise that was on the rise and kept it going in that direction."

In a Facebook post to parents on Superior's Facebook page Monday, Tsantilas called Plato's sudden firing of Superior "irresponsible."

"We are mystified by the governing board's actions," she wrote. "We can't find any logic or rationale for this move."

The lawsuit she filed asks Plato to reinstate Superior as its management company for a "60-day cure period" so Tsantilas can remedy the board's concerns. If anything, she wants to give answers to parents and students, Luikart said.

"There has been not one word discussed about how these schools are going to be run," he said. "It's hard to overstate how alarming that is."

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.


If you go

The Plato Academy board will hold an "emergency" meeting Wednesday at Plato Academy Clearwater, 2045 Palmetto St. It will begin at 1 p.m. and members will discuss litigation affecting Plato schools. Members of the public can listen in by calling (605) 475-4758 and entering access code 813840.