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Pinellas board appears ready to close three troubled charter schools

Published May 10, 2016

Times Staff Writer

The Pinellas County School Board appears poised to close three charter schools left in disarray by a company under contract to manage them.

Board members on Tuesday voiced no opposition as district officials made the case at a workshop for issuing 90-day notices to terminate the schools' charter agreements.

District administrators presented evidence against Windsor Preparatory Academy and East Windsor Middle Academy, an elementary and middle school sharing the same location in St. Petersburg, and Newpoint Pinellas Academy, a middle school in Clearwater.

The schools operate under management contracts with Newpoint Education Partners, which last week was indicted with three related companies by a grand jury in Escambia County on charges of grand theft, money laundering and aggravated white collar crime.

The district also is seeking to terminate the charter of Florida Virtual Academy in Pinellas.

Together, the four schools enroll nearly 1,000 students and receive $6 million in public money. Board members will vote on the termination notices at their regularly scheduled meeting next week.

Also on Tuesday, officials sent an email to affected parents urging them to make a new school choice for their children before August.

"The district is very sympathetic to the plight of you and your child," the email read, "however, circumstances are such that we believe the school is not in a financially viable condition. We want to provide you with an honest assessment of the situation and allow you to make a choice that is in the best interest of your child."

Aside from financial issues at the three Newpoint schools — where deficits total around $1.3 million, according to previous audits — officials told the board they found a significant lack of curriculum and materials for students at Windsor Prep and East Windsor. They also found after several site visits that the school lacked gifted services and Spanish classes as promised by the schools' charters with the district.

"We have financial concerns that are questionable, and now you have all these expenses that are thrown into that," said Rick Wolfe, the district's charter school director.

As for Newpoint Pinellas Academy, which shares a location and staff in Clearwater with Newpoint Pinellas High, officials said their primary concern is the school's financial condition. They announced that a one-year charter renewal for Newpoint Pinellas High, which is also currently managed by Newpoint, will come before the board this summer.

Even though the governing board of the three schools has taken steps to sever ties with Newpoint and rectify the issues at its schools, Wolfe said the district is "getting a lot of verbal response but no documentation." He said the district has received insufficient corrective action plans and budgets from Newpoint Pinellas Academy and Windsor Prep, and was notified that the financial and operational audits the district requested won't be completed.

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The virtual school is being recommended for termination because it has not met the requirements of the corrective action plan it was required to submit in November for board governance violations and for inaccurate reporting with more than 300 errors.

Assistant School Board Attorney Heather Wallace said the district will talk to Escambia's School Board staff and compare documentation. "We now feel a responsibility to make sure that if there is any indication of that activity in Pinellas that we get it to Pinellas' state attorney," she said.

Superintendent Mike Grego said he brought the issue to the School Board in light of recent news stories spotlighting Newpoint and "some pretty serious accusations and indictments" regarding the company.

Board member Linda Lerner voiced sympathy for the schools' governing board and the families, but said she would vote to issue the notices of termination. The schools will have a chance to submit documentation to the district within the 90-day period.

"I think they need a 90-day notice but I will have an open mind about it," she said.

Board member Rene Flowers, who has pushed for more oversight over charter schools in the state Legislature, said the board must ensure that taxpayer money is spent appropriately.

"It's not a matter of just turning it around on that," she said. "They've had time. It's not like it just happened overnight."

Chris Wenzel, vice chair for the board overseeing the three Newpoint schools and a parent of a third grader at Windsor Prep, said parents will have no options comparable to Windsor should the school close. He said the board will discuss appealing a vote to terminate the schools to the state.

"It's not a fair balance," Wenzel said, adding that the board has been proactive by sending out a breach of contract notice to Newpoint. "Give us a year to correct the issues. Shut it down if we can't get the curriculum and the finances together in one year."

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

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