The Pinellas County School Board has an easy decision to make today. It should vote to close three charter schools that have operated under management contracts with a company that has been indicted for grand theft and money laundering. Prosecutors also should investigate the cozy deals between Newpoint Education Partners and other companies that appear connected, which resulted in a terrible waste of public money. This is a mess that hurts taxpayers, parents and students — and the state should get the blame for its lax rules and overzealous support of charter schools.
The school district is poised to terminate the charter agreements for three schools managed by Newpoint: Windsor Preparatory Academy and East Windsor Middle Academy, an elementary and middle school in St. Petersburg, and Newpoint Pinellas Academy, a middle school in Clearwater. But it also should take a closer look at Newpoint Pinellas High in Clearwater and Enterprise High in Clearwater, which has separated from Newpoint, for insider purchases that cost taxpayers too much. No wonder Newpoint's website is shut down and its executives are not talking to the media or Pinellas school officials.
This is what happens when the state tilts too far toward handing over a fundamental responsibility such as public education to private companies, then lavishes them with public money and fails to provide proper oversight or insist on accountability. As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Colleen Wright reported Monday, records show Pinellas charters managed by Newpoint bought expensive equipment and supplies from interrelated companies when it could have bought the same items from the district for a fraction of the cost. And taxpayers are the big losers.
Here's just one example Wright revealed: Windsor Prep bought 43 round classroom tables for $239 each from School Warehouse, which now shares the same Cincinnati address as another company that also sold thousands of dollars worth of furniture to Newpoint's Pinellas schools and has ties to Newpoint's founder. The same tables could have been bought from the Pinellas School District for $97.51 each. Cost of the inflated price to taxpayers: More than $6,000.
Remember, charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated. While they are owned by nonprofit boards, those boards too often are recruited by for-profit management companies that run the schools, make the key decisions and reap the profits on the backs of taxpayers. There are good charter schools that meet the intended purpose of offering different educational opportunities in often smaller environments than traditional public schools. But there are too many bad apples like Newpoint that have exploited the lack of oversight.
While local school districts such as Pinellas are responsible for overseeing charter schools, most of the responsibility for these abuses rest with the state. Many school districts do not have enough staff to carefully monitor all of the charters, and they are often reluctant to deny charter applications or intervene at early signs of trouble because of the clear signal from Tallahassee. In recent years, legislators have given charter schools the same amount of money — and sometimes more — for capital projects than traditional public schools received that have far more students and buildings. The Legislature made modest changes in charter school oversight this year, requiring monthly or quarterly financial statements from the schools and requiring any charter school with two straight "F" grades to be "automatically terminated." But other reforms were blocked, and now new charter schools can qualify for public money for capital projects even faster than before.
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Closing down Pinellas charter schools today that have been managed by a company under indictment is the easy decision. The bigger challenge is convincing Tallahassee it is time to hold charter schools accountable and return them to their original focus instead of allowing them to become profit centers for private companies at considerable taxpayer expense.