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Thursday, January 16, 2014

If your private Voucher school fails in Milwaukie, don’t worries just open another in Florida.

One of the consequences of unfettered choice besides shortchanging children from getting a good education is mercenaries taking millions in public money.   Your charter school fails in Miami, don’t worry open another in Tampa. Your voucher school in Milwaukie, taking millions, fails don’t worry Florida will accept you with open arms.

From the Milwaukie Journal, by Erin Richards

A husband and wife running a private Milwaukee voucher school that abruptly closed last month — after accepting a total of more than $2.3 million in taxpayer money — now live in a gated community in Florida by the beach, records show.

Records show Taron and Rodney Monroe started a new private Christian school this year in Daytona Beach. While the school in Milwaukee was running on fumes, they were telling Florida friends they had experience getting government grants for religious schools.

Now the Monroes, who lost their five-bedroom house in West Bend to foreclosure, have disappeared.
"I haven't seen them since before Thanksgiving," said Bill Vigue, a pastor with a Christian radio show who worshipped with the Monroes in Florida.

The K-8 voucher school in Milwaukee, LifeSkills Academy, 3434 N. 38th St., served only about 400 low-income students since joining the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in 2008-'09. Its closing around Dec. 13 forced 66 students to find other schools with little notice.

The school's rise and fall illustrate how unstable operations are still a feature of Milwaukee's landmark voucher program as it heads into its 24th year.

While running LifeSkills Academy in Milwaukee, records show, the Monroes were living in a five-bedroom, 3.5-bath house in West Bend.

The home's ownership was shifted in 2011 from Lifestyle Ministries — the religious group affiliated with the Monroes — to Taron Monroe's name, according to real estate records.

A foreclosure action was filed against the property in early 2013, and the house was sold in a sheriff's sale in November, records show.

The house is now listed on the market for about $284,000.

For the past year, the Monroes have been living in a house with a private pool in Palm Coast, Fla., that sold in 2009 for $409,000, according to records.

A representative with Southern States Management Group, which manages the Palm Coast homeowners' association, confirmed Wednesday that the Monroes had been living in the gated community since about February.

Calls to all of the phone numbers listed for Taron Monroe and the family's enterprises in Milwaukee yielded disconnected numbers. Calls to the second LifeSkills Academy school in Florida were not returned.

In one online document, Vigue was listed as a board member of the school. But when contacted Wednesday by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he said he had never agreed to be on any board of the school.

Still, he defended the Monroes as honest people committed to teaching.

"They're not charlatans or con people who were trying to get government money to live high on the hog," Vigue said. "They were doing their best to provide a good education for children."

Vigue said he met the Monroes when they and their three children came to Florida about a year ago to take care of one of their moms, he said.

"I knew he had a school in Wisconsin and that he wanted to start a school here," Vigue said. "They said they had experience getting government grants for Christian schools."

He said the Monroes seemed to take turns traveling to Wisconsin to check on the Milwaukee school. Wisconsin records show the administration of the school switched from Taron Monroe to Dominic Robinson in October.

Vigue said Rodney Monroe was "a real good preacher," but that he and his wife were struggling with the new Florida school, which had only eight or nine children in 2013-'14, including some or all of the Monroes' own children.

LifeSkills Academy in Milwaukee also had troubles.

Save for one child who met the state benchmark one year in reading, no students could read or do math proficiently in 2011 or 2012, according to the most recent state test score results.

Before closing, the school collected more than $200,000 in taxpayer money this academic year. The school will not get its final two voucher payments from the state, according to the state.

In Milwaukee's voucher program, qualifying private schools receive an annual taxpayer-financed subsidy of up to $6,442 per child. Nearly 26,000 children in Milwaukee participate in the program.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction records show LifeSkills was nearly booted from the voucher program in 2010-'11 because the Monroes were listed as school administrators but didn't have bachelor's degrees — a program requirement that went into effect in 2010.

Once Taron Monroe hustled to get hers and the state was convinced that Rodney Monroe was no longer in a teaching or administrative position, the taxpayer money continued flowing, according to the DPI.

John Johnson, DPI spokesman, said Wednesday that the department's authority over voucher schools, which are all private and predominantly religious, is limited.

There's nothing in state law that allows the DPI to take action against a private school because of low academic performance or because of a school leader's personal finances, Johnson said.

Voucher school advocates say that freedom from the mandates placed on public schools means the private schools can potentially offer low- and middle-income children a better education.

But Jim Bender, head of the voucher advocacy group School Choice Wisconsin, said people like the Monroes shouldn't be running schools.

He reiterated that his group is in favor of a forthcoming bill that should propose stronger limits on who can open a voucher school, and that Milwaukee needs more high-quality voucher schools and fewer programs like LifeSkills.

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