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  1. Education

Parents, others help out after a Pinellas charter school management company disappears

Windsor Preparatory Academy and East Windsor Middle Academy share the same site at 5175 45th St. N in St. Petersburg. They are among four Pinellas County charter schools that have management contracts with Newpoint Education Partners. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Apr. 20, 2016

A management company responsible for running four Pinellas County charter schools has disappeared from the scene after recently being challenged about financial and operational problems.

The sudden absence of Newpoint Education Partners has forced parents and members of the two volunteer boards overseeing the schools to pick up the pieces. Board members moved this week to change locks and security access at the schools, and they set up new bank accounts so Newpoint can no longer access public funds that flow to the schools.

The four schools — Windsor Prep and East Windsor Middle Academy in St. Petersburg and Newpoint Pinellas Academy and Newpoint Pinellas High in Clearwater — enroll more than 700 students. They also take in about $4.5 million in public money. And over the years, under Newpoint's management, they have racked up debts totaling $1.8 million.

The Pinellas school district has requested financial and operational audits from the schools, whose finances have been described as "deteriorating." In addition, each of the four schools is under pressure to submit a corrective action plan soon to the Florida Department of Education.

As part of a fledgling turnaround effort, the boards overseeing the schools have added members, including more parents, a teacher and an accountant. A lawyer specializing in charter school law has been hired, and board members have crafted a letter of termination informing Newpoint it has breached its management contract.

According to the letter, Newpoint has been chronically absent, collected repayments for cash advances that were never signed off on and has subcontracted services without board approval. It also has tried to push its responsibilities on a nonprofit called Alliance Ed of Florida without board members' consent.

The letter gives Newpoint 60 days to correct the problems or the contract is void and the schools must manage themselves or find another management company.

"We've got a fully engaged board," said Windsor's board chairman, Robert Pergolizzi. "We don't have Newpoint giving us incomplete info anymore. We're getting a lot of momentum in the right direction."

In recent weeks, according to parents and school leaders, no one at the schools has heard from Newpoint. Company president Eileen Quinlan has not responded to requests for comment. And, before board members took control, the schools' principals did not know who to turn to for direction on hiring decisions.

Newpoint's disappearance began when it released a statement March 8 saying it had been acquired by Alliance — a claim that later proved to be untrue. Alliance's executives explained that there was only a "conceptual agreement" to acquire Newpoint. And Pinellas school district officials now say that, unless they see documentation showing otherwise, Newpoint is still the schools' management company.

Even as the turmoil unfolded, however, the boards that govern the four charters have been making strides to get their schools back on track. In past years, those boards turned their power over to Newpoint, which managed all of the schools' logistics — from payroll to hiring decisions to curriculum and maintenance.

Management companies and charter school advocates have offered their services and guidance to the boards with hopes of protecting the image of charter schools. Both Alliance and Superior Schools, which manages Plato Academy charter schools, have made business pitches to board members.

Ralph Arza, a Florida Charter School Alliance lobbyist and former state legislator, has spoken at Windsor's board meetings. So has Susan Latvala, the former Pinellas County commissioner and School Board member, who also headed the local nonprofit board that oversaw Mavericks in Education charter schools in St. Petersburg and Largo.

"I think it is our fault as a movement for not jumping in sooner," Arza told board members at a meeting Wednesday night.

With hourslong board meetings held almost every two weeks, the atmosphere of the meetings has turned from tense and curt to positive. Several parents — many of whom had advocated against Newpoint and petitioned the school district for help — now say they feel a sense of hope.

Paige Jackson, the mother of a Windsor Prep second-grader, signed up for a choice school with the district because she was afraid her charter school would close. Now, though her son is high on the wait list for Pasadena Fundamental Elementary, she said she would probably pass if a seat opened up, opting to keep her son at Windsor.

"This whole thing is about believing in and teaching him to believe in something too," she said.

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

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