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  1. Education

Gov. Scott recommended ally's company in MacDill charter school bid

Jonathan Hage, a Republican donor, is president and CEO of Charter Schools USA.
Published Feb. 28, 2014

TAMPA — Jonathan Hage sat on Gov. Rick Scott's education transition team. He and his company, Charter Schools USA, have given more than $100,000 to Scott's Let's Get To Work fund and the state Republican Party.

Now it appears it was Scott — or someone very close to him — who suggested Charter Schools USA run a school at MacDill Air Force Base.

Meeting minutes obtained by the Hillsborough County School District, which opposes the school, describe the origin of a plan that is at the heart of a battle before the Florida Board of Education.

"Upon advice from Governor Scott, MacDill Air Force Base representatives reached out to Charter Schools USA to support the process to develop and operate a charter school," the meeting minutes say.

The minutes summarize a July meeting of the nonprofit Florida Charter Educational Foundation, which works closely with Charter Schools USA.

Tom Gonzalez, a lawyer for the Hillsborough district, included the minutes in a legal filing opposing the charter. Gonzalez wants to prove there is not enough distance between the foundation — which he called "a fig leaf of a not-for-profit" – and for-profit Charter Schools USA.

Groups affiliated with Charter Schools USA have been successful in winning charters, including three in Hillsborough County. But Gonzalez contends it's clear the MacDill project was not handled appropriately, as the company got involved first and the foundation later.

Based on staff recommendations, the School Board rejected the MacDill plan in December. A state appeals commission recently backed the district's decision. The state Board of Education, whose six members all are Scott appointees, will make the final decision on March 18.

Hage, once the research director of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, has been a faithful contributor to Republicans.

Hage founded Charter Schools USA in 1997 and owns 95 percent of the Fort Lauderdale company. In September he gave $50,000 to Let's Get To Work, an organization that supports Scott's re-election campaign. His company gave another $50,000 to the state Republican Party in December.

Colleen Reynolds, spokeswoman for Charter Schools USA, denied that ties between Scott and Hage were the cause of any recommendation the governor might have made. "Gov. Scott aligns himself with people who do good work," she said. "He has aligned himself with Jon Hage because he is an expert in this field. We are leaders in the industry."

Scott spokesman John Tupps did not answer specific questions but issued a statement saying the company, the Hillsborough district and MacDill are trying to work together to serve military families.

The school district contends it already serves the military community, making a charter school unnecessary. Tinker Elementary School, on the base, earns an A every year. Middle school students can attend C-rated Monroe Middle School in South Tampa or a number of magnet schools throughout the district.

But MacDill officials told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board in November that military families have unique needs and require more support than the traditional schools might offer. What's more, they say, there is not enough room at Tinker for children whose parents live outside the base.

Asked about the meeting minutes, Charter Schools USA vice president Richard Page said the account was "generally accurate." About a year ago he got a call from a MacDill official, he said. The official said the base wanted a charter school, and "the governor's office" referred them to Charter Schools USA.

Page said he didn't know if the recommendation came from Scott or someone on his staff. His MacDill contact asked for a tour of Henderson Hammock, a school the company runs in Citrus Park. After the tour, he says they told them, "This is exactly what we are talking about."

Page said he told the MacDill group they would have to work through a nonprofit such as the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, the board for Henderson Hammock. They asked if the foundation would help them with their project. "I said, 'I'll ask them,' and so I did," Page said. "They said, 'We'd love to do that.' "

There was no response Thursday from MacDill.

Like other Republican leaders, Scott is a strong proponent of school choice, which looks to charters as an alternative to government-run schools. In recent years the state has all but cut off construction money for conventional public schools, funding charter school construction instead.

Charter schools, which use state money but operate independently of school districts, are allowed to hire management companies such as Charter Schools USA, which runs 58 schools.

But an arms-length relationship is required to ensure the school benefits children, not a business. Relationships between schools and managers are scrutinized by districts such as Hillsborough, which is seeing a rapid growth in charter enrollment.

Two days after the MacDill group met with the Times editorial board, Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia made an appearance. Elia said she offered to convert Monroe into a K-8 school to accommodate children from off the base. She also offered to run any charter school built at MacDill. She said she got no response.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3356.

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