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Proposed charter school would draw 'academically advanced' students

Michael Maynard, chairman of the proposed Chehuntamo Advanced Performance High School, said the charter would open with ninth-graders who have a strong work ethic and at least a 3.0 grade-point average. [BRENDAN FITTERER | Times]
Published Mar. 7, 2018

Plans for a proposed charter school that would pull students from Hernando and Pasco counties will be recommended for approval by the Hernando County School Board on Tuesday, according to Angela Kennedy, the district's director of school choice.

The group of past area educators behind Chehuntamo Advanced Performance High School, some of whom were either fired from or forced out of their previous posts, say it will serve the "academically advanced" and that Ivy League admission for its graduates "will be common."

The school's chairman, Michael Maynard, said the school would open with ninth-graders who have a strong work ethic and at least a 3.0 grade-point average. Students would have to submit their grades and an essay, plus sit for an interview, to be considered for admission to the school, which will offer primarily Advanced Placement courses and lead to an AP international diploma.

Maynard said the school's leaders hope to open Chehuntamo on property near the Hernando-Pasco county line, but they have not settled on a specific site.

According to the application, all Chehuntamo board members have "enjoyed a large measure of success in their personal and public lives." But a look at school records indicates that several of the key people also have been embroiled in past controversies.

While Maynard, a former Pasco AP teacher who says he spearheaded Chehuntamo, received praise from state educators for being one of the highest-impact teachers in the state in 2016, complaints filed with the district show a trail of questionable behavior.

Records reflect complaints that he ridiculed students for their sexuality; poked fun at religion, race and gender, and mocked students who struggled. Complaints say he called one student fat, another a "dirt bag" and whispered in one student's ear that she was "f---ing stupid." Many reported his use of sexual and profane comments in class, and at least three students said he made them cry.

The resume Maynard, 63, included in the charter application shows he retired from River Ridge High School in New Port Richey after teaching there from 2009 to 2016. In reality, he was transferred out of the school by Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning at the start of 2016 after a string of complaints, then moved twice more to other high schools before his 13-year stint with the district ended.

Records show that his last job at Anclote High School in Holiday lasted only a week after more complaints. Browning sent Maynard a letter in May of that year, calling the teacher's repetitive behavior "very troubling" and notifying him that he planned to recommend his termination to the School Board.

Nearly every time he was reprimanded, Maynard denied the allegations and refused to sign transfer letters sent to him by the superintendent, records show. In July 2016, before the School Board could vote on his firing, Maynard sent a retirement letter to the district.

Maynard, now a substitute teacher in Hernando, said he does not know if he would teach at Chehuntamo. Instead, he might serve as a mentor to other educators there. His hope, he said, is to create a school that teaches teens how to think and not what to think, and aims to provide academic opportunities to students who might not otherwise have them.

Another proposed Chehuntamo board member is John Sweeney, a former teacher and past Hernando School Board member who came under scrutiny in 2014 in connection with efforts to get his teenage son's poor grades changed.

A six-month investigation of the incident was deemed inconclusive, but found that Sweeney, who was on the School Board at the time, tried to get a teacher fired by falsely claiming she lost two semesters of his son's coursework. To replace the work, his son then took at-home tests without a proctor, and although he scored C's, the grades were recorded as B's after Sweeney submitted a grade-change form.

Sweeney, 55, denied doing anything wrong, then lost his re-election bid that year. His resume shows he has been out of schools since, selling nutritional products for a multi-level marketing company.

Wayne Alexander, a former Hernando superintendent who brought the district to an A status, is set to serve as the school's treasurer. He left the district in 2009, when School Board members found he had secretly applied for jobs elsewhere and pushed him out of his contract early. About the same time, Hernando's teachers union voiced concerns about his proposed budget cuts and supposed fostering of nepotism.

According to his resume, Alexander, 57, has worked in multiple education jobs in Connecticut since.

The leading candidate for principal of Chehuntamo, Maynard said, is Maria Swanson, a past principal of River Ridge. She is credited with reviving the school's academic performance from 2009 to 2015, when she abruptly resigned amid a district investigation into an alleged affair with an assistant principal. Swanson, 52, faced a similar inquiry four years earlier, when she was investigated regarding an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate in 2009 at Wiregrass Ranch High School, but the district took no action against her.

Listed as the secretary for the school is Dr. "Doc" Thayer, 69. He taught math at Land O'Lakes High School from 2000 to 2016, when he retired, and he continues to teach as an adjunct professor for online colleges and universities, which he has done since the early 1980s. He owns a local rock 'n' roll radio station and does bodybuilding as a hobby.

Sweeney, Alexander and Swanson did not return the Tampa Bay Times' calls seeking comment. Thayer declined to comment, deferring to Maynard, who called the team "excellent" and said he hopes potential students and their families will look past incidents some board members have been involved in to see what the charter school can offer them.

"There are naysayers and haters in every crowd. There is nothing we can do about that," Maynard said. "We have a team of people who have excellent credentials and have actual experience in getting results."

The Hernando School Board will hear a presentation by the Chehuntamo team during a 2 p.m. workshop Tuesday, then vote at the board's 6 p.m. meeting. If the application is approved, the school's leaders will have 30 days to develop a contract with the district that would be sent to the Florida Department of Education, which will ultimately decide if Chehuntamo will open in August 2018.

Staff writer Jeff S. Solochek and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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