The Troubling Links Between Imagine’s Failing Charter Schools in St. Louis and Florida

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Elisa Crouch writes that Imagine’s sponsor is pulling the plug on two of the company’s six city schools. The mayor wants all six closed.

James French, chairman of Missouri Baptist University’s education division, notified each school’s governing board by letter. At the school year’s conclusion, the university will revoke the charter that Imagine Academy of Academic Success and Imagine Academy of Cultural Arts operate under. Closures may come sooner if the two schools do not address student safety issues by implementing intruder, discipline and bus safety plans by the end of winter break.

Both are elementary schools, with Academic Success serving students up to eighth grade. Their combined enrollment is 872 children.

During a review that began in mid-November, Missouri Baptist and education consultants found shortcomings at the schools that are among the most fundamental of failures. At Academic Success and Cultural Arts schools, “Curriculum plans do not exist; unit plans do not exist,” French’s letter to school board President Joan Hubbard states. The board had met just once this school year, when it should meet monthly. And neither school has an approved budget for the 2011-12 year.

How they were able to get by which such glaring attention to safety and planning  is remarkable. Why Rick Scott would have  wanted Imagine’s CEO Dennis Bakke on his education transition team is mind-boggling. Bakke operates three failing schools in Florida. The same company, Entertainment Properties Trust (EPT) , which the St. Louis schools lease their space from also leases space to Bakke’s West Melbourne school.

Bakke and Imagine’s partnership with EPT is a curious one. Imagine’s own website describes its finance arm, Schoolhouse Finance LLC as “part of the Imagine Schools family.”

We believe that a high quality school building is an important ingredient in fulfilling our mission to help parents educate their children. Our school buildings provide safety, stability, a long-term presence, and a high-quality learning environment for children. New charter school boards often find it very difficult to secure facilities because the non-profit entity lacks credit history or credit worthiness.

Just as government-operated schools use bonds to finance schools, Imagine Schools (through Schoolhouse Finance) uses its credit to provide the financial backing for long-term leases and building purchases. Each school’s lease rate is based on the actual costs to purchase, construct or renovate the school building and the school-yard.

Schoolhouse Finance generally leases the buildings for at least 15-25 years in order to provide a long-term, stable location.  The individual school then sub-leases the building from Schoolhouse Finance only for the period that its individual charter is valid (usually 3-5 years).  Therefore, the school is not taking on a bigger or longer term obligation than it can handle, and the financial burden of securing a stable, long-term and high quality building is shouldered by Schoolhouse Finance.

Imagine makes no mention of EPT who apparently is taking over the work some of the financial business that Schoolhouse once did. EPT apparently knows there’s big money to be had in the charter school industry. So why did the Imagine-Schoolhouse entity need to cut EPT in on their action? And why is no mention made in their website about EPT?

EPT agreed to the St. Louis agreement with Imagine-Schoolhouse three years ago in 2008, certainly plenty of time to update their website.  Imagine-Schoolhouse sold the West Melbourne, Florida property to EPT in 2010.

There’s a good chance that Imagine-Schoolhouse are in dire financial peril. With the lease leverage percentage for the Florida school at whopping 44 percent, news that Imagine-Schoolhouse is forgiving its $4.3 million debt to its St. Louis schools while being still is on the hook to EPT for the leases demonstrates a pattern of financial woes for the company.

Crouch’s story furthermore reveals that at Imagine’s St. Louis schools “little money is spent on textbooks and supplies.” Its reasonable to presume that this reality is not an isolated one for Imagine. That charter schools frequently operate on the cheap like this isn’t new in Florida. Nor are such tortured financials.

UPDATE: Imagine’s equally troubling Indiana record.


About Bob Sikes

A long time ago and a planet far, far away I was an athletic trainer for the New York Mets. I was blessed to be part of the now legendary 1986 World Series Championship. My late father told me that I'd one day be thankful I had that degree in teaching from Florida State University. He was right and I became twice blesses to become a teacher in the late 1990's. After dabbling with writing about the Mets and then politics, I settled on education.
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2 Responses to The Troubling Links Between Imagine’s Failing Charter Schools in St. Louis and Florida

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