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Tampa's Richardson Montessori charter school will close after nearly two decades

Juliana Leech practices with a hula hoop on the playground of the Richardson Montessori Academy Tuesday in Tampa. The school, which has served students in north and central Tampa since 1997, will close its doors at the end of the school year. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |   Times (2012)]
Juliana Leech practices with a hula hoop on the playground of the Richardson Montessori Academy Tuesday in Tampa. The school, which has served students in north and central Tampa since 1997, will close its doors at the end of the school year. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2012)]
Published May 20, 2016

TAMPA — One of the oldest but smallest charter schools in Hillsborough County will close its doors at the end of the school year.

Richardson Montessori Academy, which has served students in north and central Tampa since 1997, raised its state grades in recent years but struggled financially. It had just 27 students at one point this year.

"We look forward to a smooth transition," said a brief letter from chairman Anthony R. Mack, Sr., surrendering the school's charter, or contract, with the school district.

A report from the school district traces Richardson's problems to a relocation in 2013 to its current site at 9390 N Florida Ave. near Chamberlain High School.

"This move impacted the enrollment of the school significantly," the report said. While the state allocates funding according to student population, economies of scale make it difficult to operate a school if its student numbers are too low.

The school received a one-year contract renewal in 2015 after the district also found problems in the school's governance, administration, curriculum and student services. As officials monitored the school's progress in those areas, low enrollment continued to eat away at the bottom line. A review in December showed a year-end deficit of $61,493.

Richardson's closing comes at a time of overall growth in the number of schools that operate independently of the school district.

Not including Richardson, the district now has 41 charter schools serving more than 16,000 students, or about 7.5 percent of the district's student population.

A dozen more schools were approved in the past year, which could add more than 5,000 students if all are built.

But most have not yet arranged locations and will delay their plans, said district charter schools director Jenna Hodgens. At most, three of the new schools will open, serving fewer than 1,000 students combined.

Entering this year's teachers' union negotiations, district officials estimated that $125 million in tax dollars will flow this year to Hillsborough's charter schools.

And the growth is not expected to end there. A local representative of Charter Schools USA, the Fort Lauderdale management company, wants to operate 20 schools in the Tampa Bay area by the year 2020.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol