Pasco parents plead for charter school extension

District officials offered Union Park Charter Academy a year to clear up budget problems. Families at the school wanted five years, for stability.
The entrance to Union Park Charter Academy in Pasco County. The school opened in 2018.
The entrance to Union Park Charter Academy in Pasco County. The school opened in 2018. [ Twitter ]
Published April 6, 2021|Updated April 6, 2021

The Union Park Charter Academy charter school has found much success since opening in 2018.

It earned an A grade from the state in its first year of operation, creating a strong community of students, parents and staff over time.

But the Charter Schools USA campus also encountered financial troubles that raised cautionary flags for Pasco County school district officials.

According to the district’s annual review, Union Park Charter did not run balanced budgets in either of its two completed fiscal years, ending with deficits that exceeded $1 million. It did not prepare budget amendments or provide transparency in how it used taxpayer funds, the district’s internal auditor said, and it based projections on enrollment figures that exceeded reality.

As a result, when Union Park leaders asked for a five-year charter extension this year, district administrators were reticent. They recommended the School Board, which sponsors the charter, authorize one year instead.

“The district has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the charter is financially sound,” superintendent Kurt Browning told the board. He called for the single year “so that they and we can have more conversations about things we believe should be in place in order to right their financial house.”

He stressed that he had no desire to close the charter school, and no plans to do so if the school can improve its money situation.

Dozens of parents came to the board’s Tuesday meeting to plead for a longer term.

The past year has been challenging enough, parent Anny Cespedes told the board, with the school serving as a bright spot for children and the community.

“Please don’t make us have to have a Plan B for our kids’ schools,” she said.

One by one, parents spoke of how their children blossomed academically and socially at Union Park. They boasted of the family atmosphere that the school has provided.

“I understand there might be financial issues going on. Those things can be resolved,” parent Jennifer Boykin said. “The more important thing for me … is to just have the stability.”

Representatives from the charter contended their school had not met any conditions that would justify less than a five-year extension. They said they planned to make proper amendments to their budget.

School district internal auditor Mary Tillman suggested the pending action was too late, a product of the district’s plan to offer a shortened extension.

“I have no doubt that Charter Schools USA has the resources to support the school, but we haven’t seen anything in writing that they intend to do that,” Tillman told the board, as she reviewed her concerns with the school’s finances.

School Board members said they appreciated the parents’ passion for Union Park.

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“It’s crystal clear,” board member Alison Crumbley said. “You love your school and children appear to be flourishing. ... (But) we are stewards of the taxpayer dollars and we have to be transparent.”

They noted that all charter schools must follow the same financial rules, and others did not have similar problems.

“We want you to be successful,” board member Megan Harding told the audience. “We are going to give you one year to fix your budget.”

Board chairman Allen Altman noted that the district was not seeking a complete turnaround overnight. It wants to see progress, though, he said, with clear financial controls put in place.

The board voted unanimously to approve the one year, indicating that a longer charter could be acceptable once the current issues are addressed.