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Monday, December 19, 2011

Florida's charter schools give the state a black eye

From Florida Public

With such a strong push for continued expansion in Florida, I am compelled to share my experiences as a police officer with the ugly side of Charter Schools and their management companies. As a former investigator and supervisor of a public corruption unit, several years ago my unit was responsible for a series of criminal investigations involving personnel, owners, and partners of Charter Schools. Where as some of these investigations resulted in schools being shut down and arrests others culminated in utter frustration resulting from criminals getting away with fraud. A fact made possible by industry wide practices that benefit from weak laws and the impossibility of effective industry oversight.

During the course of these investigations members of my unit worked with a host of local, state, and federal investigators. One of which became the target of a multi-state Federal Bureau of Investigations criminal investigation. Where as, I do not claim to be an expert in the business of running Charter Schools my investigative experience provided a good insight into the big businesses of collecting Tax Dollars for educating public school children. It is from this insight that I share the following:

In everyone of our investigative cases, the schools were set up as nonprofit organizations. Most hired management companies to oversee the day to day operation of the schools. They all had a Board of Directors, had applied for and granted a Charter to be a school from local school districts as governed by Florida State Statute 1002.33 Their main source of revenue was per pupil funding – called Full Time Equivalent (FTE). Some received more funding based on student disabilities. In every case the drive to recruit more students was the primary focus of the schools and management companies. Most schools had received additional funding from available grants and all claimed Tax Exemptions as nonprofit organizations.

In just about every case the founders of the Charter Schools had ties to the Board of Directors which authorized the hiring of the management companies to run the schools. Even worse, we discovered the owners of the management companies were either the same as the school founders or were directly connected to them. All of which revealed major conflicts of interests in most of the decisions made on the spending of Tax Dollars and education of students.

Like the Miami Herald’s Charter Schools expose, we confirmed the common practice of management companies charging for the leasing of school site facilities, vehicles, and materials. Items that were either owned by the management company or linked to their owners. A practice that was followed with exorbitant management fees charged for services that often could not be explained, were unjustified, or could have been done by school staff for less. In all, these companies’ rule over all matters of business resulted in the majority of the schools’ money being collected by the management company or vendors of their choice without the benefit of competitive bids.

Internally, school staff like teachers, school administrators, and other staff were generally paid less than their public school counterparts. Staff had no benefit of collective bargaining, union representation and as such were at will employees. Teachers were commonly discovered to be teaching out of field. Interviews revealed there were individuals hired with minimal to no qualifications to teach or perform the job functions of their assignments. The majority of these schools were found to be ill equipped with teaching materials that often were substandard to those in public schools. The lack of common resources available in public school districts was a constant.

As public school districts continue to struggle for their survival, Charter Schools are receiving the benefit of support by elected officials and big interests stakeholders buying their way to cashing in on the riches of taxpayers.

Without the unity of “We the People of Florida” those intent on defrauding the public through the use of nonprofit Charter Schools and their management companies will continue to get richer at the expense of our children, public school districts and taxpayers. In solidarity we must demand enactment of laws that bring Charter Schools, their Board of Directors, management companies, and vendors in line with the stricter requirements governing public school districts in the use of public funds for curriculum, hiring, competitive bids, any and all other financial expenditures.

Robert Asencio, President

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