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  1. Education

More uncertainty surrounds troubled Pinellas charter school company

For months, parents at Pinellas County's second-largest charter school fought to get rid of its troublesome management company, Newpoint Education Partners.

Windsor Preparatory Academy in St. Petersburg had racked up debts of nearly $1 million and wrestled with curriculum problems and high teacher turnover, all during Newpoint's tenure. Then last week came hopeful news: Newpoint announced it had been acquired by a nonprofit called Alliance Ed of Florida, which would take over and manage the school.

But on Thursday night as dozens of parents showed up to hear Alliance's plans for a turnaround, they were greeted with more confusion, uncertainty and vague explanations. Alliance executives Justin Matthews and Jennifer Lucas said they never purchased or formally acquired Newpoint, which operates four schools in Pinellas with more than 700 students and budgets that use more than $4.5 million in public money.

"We have a conceptual agreement to acquire it," Matthews told parents. "As it stands right now, all of your current contracts are enforced with Newpoint."

That was not what Newpoint president Eileen Quinlan said in her news release, dated March 8. But Matthews said neither he nor Lucas, who was named in the release, were notified of the statement or approved it to be distributed.

Quinlan did not respond to requests for comment.

Matthews said he has family ties to Pinellas and would like to help Newpoint's distressed schools, which include East Windsor Middle Academy, Newpoint Pinellas Academy and Newpoint Pinellas High, in addition to Windsor Prep. The high school has a separate board.

The schools, except for East Windsor, have been told to submit a "corrective action plan" to the Florida Department of Education by April 5 stating how they plan to turn things around. The Pinellas County School District has described the schools' financial condition as "deteriorating."

Matthews, who said he was approached by Newpoint in the fall, pitched a seven-year plan to the Windsor board and parents Thursday night. He said he and Lucas would work for no charge on the school's corrective-action plan.

In a development late Friday, Rick Wolfe, the district's charter school director, sent letters to all the Newpoint schools requesting a full financial and operational audit in case the schools' corrective-action plans aren't very detailed.

The schools may hire an outside agency to conduct the audit or the district will arrange for the audit. The schools are responsible for all costs involved, and Wolfe gave them 10 days to tell the district how they would like to proceed. He also asked each school to submit new documentation if they are no longer under contract with Newpoint.

"We just want to make sure we get all the information to help us make a decision about the school," Wolfe said. The district can either approve or deny the corrective-action plan before it is sent to the state.

Wolfe said Windsor Prep, Newpoint Pinellas High and Newpoint Pinellas Academy have been considered for termination over the summer as a last resort.

Some parents said there was new hope to save Windsor. They credited the board's two new parent members, Chris Wenzel and Megan Smith, who on Thursday pressed to see documents on teacher pay and the schools' relationships with certain vendors. Some parents called for board chairman Robert Pergolizzi and principal Veronica Fly to step down.

Pergolizzi said Thursday that the board can choose to accept or reject Alliance as its new management company or manage itself. A representative from Plato charter schools attended the meeting and offered his services to manage the school.

"That is an eye-opener to teachers and parents that Newpoint is still operating the school," Wenzel said. "It was news to me."

After the meeting, Matthews held a question-and-answer session with parents.

"Tonight was chaos, but out of chaos is order," parent Jessica Ismoilov said. "We have identified our problem and we have found a way forward."

Others weren't so optimistic.

"You would want to be optimistic because you would like someone to come in and save the day," said another parent, Mary Ann Knispel. "But I question (Alliance's) motives."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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