The Pinellas County School District is closely monitoring two charter schools that have amassed numerous parent complaints amid concerns about their academic performance and financial practices.
The district has made extra visits in recent months to Windsor Preparatory Academy and East Windsor Middle Academy, and asked both schools to submit monthly financial reports. And Rick Wolfe, the district's director of charter schools and home education, said officials are discussing an exit plan in case a large number of families decide to leave.
Together, the schools enroll 759 students in kindergarten through eighth grade on the same site at 5175 45th St. N in St. Petersburg.
"We're not anticipating a mass exodus, but we certainly want to provide options for those parents who are concerned," Wolfe said.
The two schools have a rocky past. Windsor Preparatory, which opened in 2012, currently has an F grade from the state, triggering a district investigation. And East Windsor's 2014 debut was stunted after it turned away dozens of families days before the start of the school year because construction on its middle school building was incomplete.
More recently, Wolfe has asked East Windsor to submit a revised budget after the school did not provide documentation for how it spent $75,000 in federal grant funds and instead sent the school district a check for the same amount last month.
Charter schools are publicly funded but managed and operated privately, with limited oversight from the public school system.
Both of the Windsor schools are managed by Newpoint Education Partners, which is being investigated by the Florida Department of Education for improperly moving grant-funded resources among its schools. The state has not yet completed an inventory of items purchased with funds granted to schools elsewhere that were found in three now-defunct Newpoint-run charter schools in Escambia County.
Officials say Newpoint is cooperating with the investigation.
Wolfe said that the district has not found any issues in Windsor Prep's and East Windsor's financial documents but that the other recent troubles could jeopardize Windsor Prep's charter, which is up for renewal next year.
Wolfe attended his first Windsor School Board meeting on Tuesday after receiving numerous complaints from parents regarding high teacher turnover, the school's reimbursement of its grant money, its cleanliness and its curriculum.
He said that some issues, such as a back order of curriculum materials and contracting a night cleaning crew, should've been dealt with by the start of the school year.
"That's why we are monitoring the school closely," said Wolfe, who sat in Windsor Prep's cafeteria along with about 100 parents.
Veronica Fly, who is principal of both charters, told the audience that the school had improved on several counts, including maintenance, attendance, testing for third- and eighth-grade students, and curriculum for English language arts and math. But fifth-graders still show a deficit in reading, language arts and science, she said.
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Eileen Quinlan, Newpoint's president, updated parents on the school's small-group teaching model and its monitoring of student progress. She said the school suffered no financial impact from the reimbursement to the district.
"We've really taken a strong look at the concerns you share," she told parents.
During public comment, 16 speakers sounded off with complaints about teacher turnover and compensation, financial accountability, discrepancies between their children's grades and test scores, and the school not answering its phones during the day.
Some called for Newpoint to be fired as the school's management company. Another parent asked for the next board meeting, scheduled for February, to be moved up — before the Pinellas School District's January application period to get into special programs such as magnet and fundamental schools.
Terri Brown said her fifth-grader is on the principal's list, but doesn't do well testing. "How good are those tests, or how good is the report card?" she asked.
Mary Ann Knipsel requested that an independent firm review the last two years of the schools' expenses.
Theresa McCormick asked what the schools would do to retain teachers. "We had a mass exodus over the summer," she said.
Felicia Herr said hers was the third family to enroll at Windsor, but now she worried about its future.
"I would like to see Windsor be the model school for charter schools," she said.
After the meeting, Quinlan said in an interview that additional reading materials were purchased and delivered recently because of increasing enrollment. She said that the schools have textbooks in every classroom but that they use printed texts and Web-based resources.
"We don't have a textbook-driven model," she said.
Some parents, however, complained that some classrooms had poor Internet connections and were missing chargers for laptops. Quinlan said the schools were improving Internet bandwidth and buying additional wiring.
In response to concerns about cleanliness, she said the two full-time custodians for the two facilities thought they could clean both buildings during the day. Bids for a night cleaning crew will begin after winter break.
"Every organization is constantly evaluating its needs," she said. "Even though the school year starts in August, we are continually evaluating our needs and making adjustments as the school year progresses."
Quinlan said the schools also are working to add phone lines in response to parents' complaints about not being able to reach the staff by phone.
Regarding teacher turnover and compensation, she said most returning teachers received a salary increase at the beginning of the school year. She also said students' grades are being reviewed for validity.
Quinlan said she doesn't think the schools will lose students, adding that they have received several new enrollment inquiries in the past week.
She also said she had never seen so many parents attend a Windsor School Board meeting.
"I'm glad if they have concerns that they're letting us know what they are," she said. "We're going to do everything we can."
Contact Colleen Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.