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Friday, October 26, 2012

Why don't Florida's charter schools have transparency?

By Lauren Roth, Orlando Sentinel

An Orange County charter school that gave its principal a $519,000 departure payout was an academic failure that struggled to provide its students with basic materials and qualified teachers, an evaluation by the school district shows.

In 2011-12, NorthStar High School's directors paid Principal Kelly Young more than twice as much money as they spent on the school's educational program.

Including her annual salary, bonuses and payout, Young took home at least $824,000 in taxpayer money that year, not including payments she continues to receive for winding down the school's operations.

By comparison, the school spent $366,042 on instruction, including teacher salaries, last school year, according to an audit paid for by the school.

"I have never seen an act that egregious in 15 years of working with charters," said State Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, a charter school business administrator who started a charter school 15 years ago. State lawmakers from both parties are calling for reforms to the charter law that would add transparency and accountability.

"What have we done?" said state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, an educator for nearly four decades and a legislator on a key education budget committee. "How did we let this happen and how can we correct it?"

NorthStar's lavish payment to their principal was not an isolated instance. In 2010-11, when Young's contract called for $305,000 in pay, the school spent $372,009 on instruction. Her pay made up a third of the school's budget that year.

The school lacked computers, a library or cafeteria services at its facility in concrete portables on Curry Ford Road. According to the January report by Orange County Public Schools, the school's reading teacher was not certified in reading and NorthStar didn't have someone certified to teach English language-learners.

"I didn't see curriculum materials that I thought would result in academic improvement for students," said Ronnie DeNoia, principal of A-rated Lake Eola Charter School. She was on a panel that toured the school for the report, which was part of NorthStar's contract renewal process.

"That school served a haven purpose, not an academic purpose."

Nearly three quarters of NorthStar's students failed the state reading test, and half failed in math. But students who attended say it was the first school where they felt supported.

In June, the charter school's board cited Young for "leadership" and "providing an excellent educational opportunity for at risk and underprivileged children in Orange County" in its resolution authorizing the payout of more than $500,000 upon the school's closing.

Young was president of the board for the past three years and was a voting member, said her lawyer, Usher "Larry" Brown. The state's top official overseeing charter schools said that serving as principal and board president is a conflict of interest.

Meeting minutes show Young abstained from the vote on her payment.

A 2010 contract that set Young's annual pay at about $305,000 a year also obligated the school to pay off her contract if the school was not renewed. That made Young's salary substantially higher than Orange County Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, who is paid a salary of $230,000 for overseeing 181,000 students in the nation's 10th largest school district.

NorthStar had about 180 students.

"You can't be having these golden parachutes in any industry, especially one funded with taxpayer money," said Legg, who added that he wants to see more transparency in reporting charter school salaries.

Brown said Young's pay wasn't a secret because it could have been deduced from financial filings that showed administrative salaries. The school had only two administrators, Young and administrative assistant Carla Genco, who was paid about $40,000 a year.

The school, which operated for 11 years, was never an academic standout. It's last grade from the state was a D, but it was losing ground last year. "It wasn't a good educational environment for students," said Christopher Bernier, who oversees charter schools in Orange County. "They weren't producing. They weren't learning."

Writing scores, science pass rates and the scores of the school's worst performers were sliding. The school graduated 44.9 percent of its students in 2011, down from 69 percent two years earlier, according to the January review.

The review led district staff to recommend that the school's contract not be renewed. In response, the charter school's independent board decided to close the school.

A February letter signed by Young accused the district of denying the school's request to be evaluated on a less rigorous standard because they served a struggling population, and of "being set up to fail."

Michael Kooi, the administrator who oversees charter schools for the state Department of Education, said he would be looking into the situation at NorthStar.

"The first and most important level of trust we place in the charter school is the governing board," Kooi said. "You have a governing board that appears to have made a very poor financial decision."

Before the school closed, the district was also investigating payments of $7,500 each to two board members for performing office work in 2010. Board members are not to be paid, according to the NorthStar contract.

Montford said he's already drafting legislation that would make charter schools more accountable and transparent.

"There may be others out there, but we don't know," he said. "Florida is known for transparency. Why does it stop at the charter school door?" or 407-420-5120. Follow her on Twitter @RothLauren.,0,4623079.story

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