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Hernando County charter school may get shorter contract

BEST Academy has struggled with student performance, declining enrollment and financial reporting problems.

BROOKSVILLE — Principal Andre Buford of BEST Academy, a science and technology charter school whose enrollment has been declining, asked the Hernando County School Board on Tuesday to renew its charter for at least five more years.

But Board chairwoman Susan Duval, citing concerns over the institution’s financial position, student performance scores and discrepancies on the application, said she could support only the two-year charter renewal term recommended by Dawn Williams, supervisor of school choice for the district.

“I don’t doubt your sincerity, I don’t doubt the fact that you care for your students. I’m questioning none of that," Duval told Buford. "But what I do have are questions about information in the documents that were submitted to us.’’

Williams reported that the school, officially called Brooksville Engineering Science & Technology Academy, was given a C grade for 2016-17 and 2017-18 and made B in 2018.

“While we congratulate them for achieving a B, we must note that school grade data for 2018 and 2019 reflect more losses than gains,’’ she said.

The school has seen a decline in student performance over the past two years. In 2016-17, the school had the second lowest percentage of students scoring at grade level or above and the lowest percentage of learning gains for middle grades in English language arts.

“In mathematics that same year, BEST posted the lowest math learning gains in the district,’’ she said.

Again in 2017-18, BEST posted the lowest percentage of learning gains in the district for middle grades language arts. In 2018-19, student social studies performance decreased 7 percentage points, the lowest among district middle schools. Middle school acceleration was 61 percent in 2018-19, the highest in the district, but the acceleration percentages have decreased each year since 2016-17.

Buford told the board that the school performs as well or better than any other Title 1 school — those with an economically-disadvantaged student population — in Hernando County.

“We have attempted and still strive to, at BEST Academy, to provide our students with the type of education that will thrust them forward in the years to come as they go into high school,’’ he said.

Enrollment at the nonprofit middle school dropped from 130 in 2015-16 to 121 in 2016-17 to 88 students currently. Duval, noting that state funding is based on enrollment, called that "a significant loss in funding.’’

Buford said the school is launching a recruitment campaign to attract more students and will initiate a fundraising campaign aimed at parents of the school’s alumni.

The school’s net balance of unrestricted funds dropped $30,000 from the year before, from $200,000 to nearly $170,000. The school’s expenses rose when it hired armed guards to protect students, as required by the state, Buford said.

Duval also asked about an audit that pointed to discrepancies in the school’s monthly financial reports.

“We noted that the school’s submitted monthly reports did not contain year-to-date amounts as a yearly comparison,’’ stated the report from Tampa accounting firm King & Walker. “In addition, we noted several differences in the reported revenues, expenditures and fund balance amounts when compared to corrected amounts at year end. The absence of this information and the inaccurate monthly reporting could result in uninformed financial decision by management.’’

Buford said the person he hired to prepare that information had been terminated. An accounting firm now completes the monthly financial report and provides a copy to the school district.

Despite the staff’s recommendation for a two-year charter renewal, Board member Jimmy Lodato said he favored a five-year contract for BEST, because two years wouldn’t be enough time to turn the school around. He said he’s visited the school many times and is impressed with the students’ enthusiasm and the staff’s dedication.

“I think you have done a tremendous job with what you have,’’ he told Buford.

The board is expected to vote on the matter March 10. The school’s two-year contract ends June 30.

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