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Four Hillsborough schools get an external operator with political history

The state wanted two operators, not one, to oversee Hillsborough’s troubled schools.
Kimbell Elementary School has multiple teacher vacancies and last year's teacher survey showed low morale. It is one of four schools that will be overseen by a new external operator headed by former lawmaker Trey Traviesa. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Kimbell Elementary School has multiple teacher vacancies and last year's teacher survey showed low morale. It is one of four schools that will be overseen by a new external operator headed by former lawmaker Trey Traviesa. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]
Published Aug. 14, 2019|Updated Aug. 14, 2019

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is about to place a consulting firm, headed by a former Republican state legislator, in charge of four of its most distressed public schools.

James and Kimbell Elementary, which have "F" grades from the state; Robles Elementary and Sulphur Springs K-8, which both are "D" schools, will come under a subsidiary of MGT of America, subject to a School Board vote on Tuesday. All four schools serve low-income areas in east and central Tampa.

MGT is headed up by Trey Traviesa, who represented parts of Tampa and East Hillsborough in the legislature between 2004 and 2008.

Before and after he left state office, Traviesa got involved in a number of business ventures. He also launched an East Tampa charter school in 2017, of which he is president. The school, Collaboratory Preparatory Academy, was graded "F" in its first year and now has a “C.” Its vice president is Suzanne Legg, a founding administrator of Dayspring Academy in West Pasco along with her husband, former lawmaker John Legg.

Tuesday’s School Board agenda attachment calls for MGT to do business through a wholly owned subsidiary called Hillsborough County Schools Succeed, LLC.

External operators step in, under a new state practice, if a school passes too many years with "D" or "F" grades. The district also has the option of closing these schools or converting them to charters, which are managed independently of government.

Instead of taking these drastic steps, Hillsborough has chosen to hire operators.

Phalen Leadership Academies, which runs charter-like schools in Indiana, is already the operator of record for Foster and Oak Park Elementary. Neither of those schools improved their reading levels significantly last year under Phalen. A third, Sheehy Elementary, improved to a "C" grade, largely because of learning gains among the lowest-scoring students, and exited the group.

With six more schools falling into the category that would require an outside operator, the state Board of Education did not believe Phalen had the capacity to handle all eight. Those closest to a C — McDonald and Folsom Elementary — joined the Phalen group.

The state then worked with Hillsborough district leaders to find an operator for the other four.

According to district spokeswoman Tanya Arja, staff researched operators that had worked with the state and found that MGT had been successful in another district in getting a school off the state turnaround list.

“Our staff had a discussion with them,” Arja said. “We felt that they would be able to do a great job.”

While the contract between the district and MGT was not yet posted on Wednesday, the agenda item says the firm will be paid $1.46 million. But there’s a catch: The state is withholding money if the operators do not get results. The penalty for nonperformance, based on school grades, could be anywhere from $1,26 million to $2 million.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told the Tampa Bay Times earlier in the week that his department has very deliberately built penalties into these agreements to hold operators accountable for results.

“We’re not just going to give you hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money unless you are going to promise and prove to us that you can deliver a world class education to our children," Corcoran said. "And if you can’t, we’re not paying you.”

The four schools under MGT’s umbrella have experienced varying degrees of distress in recent years.

Sulphur Springs has struggled in its conversion from an elementary to a K-8 and bounced from a D to an F for the last five years.

James suffered double-digit teacher vacancies for much of last year and logged the lowest pass rate in reading among the state’s 300 lowest-scoring reading schools.

Kimbell has multiple teacher vacancies advertised this year. The school ended last year with employee morale that was among the district’s lowest, according to its teacher climate survey.

Robles is arguably the least troubled of the four. But students there have been targeted, under a new state program, for a charter “school of hope.”

The Times is still seeking more information about MGT and the relationship, and will update this post as that information becomes available.


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