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Sunday, October 28, 2012

A lack of charter school oversight worries many

By Lauren Roth, Orlando Sentinel
The principal of a failed Orange County charter school took home a check for more than $500,000 as the school closed down in June and is still being paid thousands of dollars a month to wrap up the school's affairs.
The check for $519,453.36 in taxpayer money was cut to Kelly Young, principal of NorthStar High School, two days after the Orange County School Board accepted the school's plan to close in lieu of being shut down for poor performance.
The payment, which was authorized by the charter school's independent board, appears to be legal.

State Sen. David Simmons called for a thorough investigation. "There's no room for abuse by charter or traditional schools," Simmons said. "All it does is hurt children."But Orange County School Board chairman Bill Sublette is outraged at the payout, calling it "a shameful abuse of public tax dollars" and "immoral."
Leftover money from a charter school that shuts down, minus grant and capital dollars, are supposed to go back to school districts upon closure.
NorthStar, which had a balance of $717,293 at the end of the 2011 school year, has not turned over any money to Orange County Public Schools.
A statement provided to the district by the charter school showed a balance of less than $10,000 on June 29.
Young's payout was based on a contract that called for her to be paid about $305,000 per year through 2014, even though the school's contract was up for renewal in 2012. She was paid 85 percent of her remaining contract.
Her yearly pay and bonuses to run the school, which served about 180 largely at-risk students in east Orange County, was higher than that of Barbara Jenkins, superintendent of the 181,000-student Orange County Public Schools.
The highest-paid principal at a traditional Orange school this year made $116,565.
According to a required annual audit of the NorthStar received by the district Oct. 1, Young is still being paid $8,700 bi-monthly to shut down the school.
The district was unaware of the principal's pay because the school is not required to report it under Florida's charter school law. Earlier audits by an outside firm hired by NorthStar had noted the school had contracts that would require payouts to several employees, but no dollar figure was calculated.
"The law is very clear that school boards cannot put limits or control how a charter school spends their money, including payouts like this" or salaries, said Sublette. He called the payment "immoral and unethical" and noted that it could have paid the salary of five district principals for a year.
Because charter schools do not have to report their principals' salaries in Florida, it is unclear how many might have contracts or salaries similar to Young's.
None of the charter board's members returned calls for comment Wednesday. But they adopted a resolution June 14 calling her payout "well-deserved and earned for her years of dedicated service at a below-market rate of compensation."
Charter schools are privately run public schools with fewer regulations than traditional public schools. Like all public schools in Florida, they get state money based on their student population.
School boards must authorize charters – but have little oversight authority once they are opened. Expanding charter schools and school choice are priorities of Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican Legislature.
But Sublette and other local school leaders across Florida have been calling for stricter regulations after a number of charter schools failed to provide even basic educational services to their students.
Young opened the school 11 years ago, in part to provide a charter high school option for her daughter. She initially made about $45,000 a year, said attorney Larry Brown, who spoke on Young's behalf.
"Here's a lady with no retirement, who at that point had put six years of her life into the school, feeling like she had to make provision for retirement in her contract," Brown said.
The school, which earned two "D" grades, one "F" and one "B" from that state between 2006 and 2010, was never an academic standout, but served as a haven for a group of students who felt they didn't fit anywhere else.
Students at the school, which was based in a group of concrete portables on Curry Ford Road, had no access to computers, a library or cafeteria service. An evaluation of the school this past spring found that it lacked appropriate materials to teach struggling readers or English language-learners.
"It wasn't the best school out there, but she was an excellent principal," said Melissa Stites, a 2011 NorthStar grad, of Kelly Young.
Two other charter school principals in Orange County said they make less than $100,000 a year. A charter school principal's contract does not usually last longer than their school's agreement with the district, they said.
"I'm sure the letter of the law was followed," said Ronnie DeNoia, principal of the A-rated Lake Eola Charter School. "But there's a difference between legal and moral."
DeNoia, who was part of the panel that evaluated NorthStar in the spring, said the money would have been better spent on scholarships for students or given to charity.
Osvaldo Garcia, principal of B –rated Passport Charter School in Orange County, said he was "shocked" by Young's pay.
"It is unfortunate that the poor actions of a few give us a bad name," he said. or 407-420-5120. Follow her on Twitter @RothLauren.

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