Three of the state’s largest newspapers – the Orlando Sentinel, the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times – have served the interest of Floridians by reporting on the often questionable and shady dealings of charter schools. In yesterday’s paper, Times reporters Ron Matus and Jeff Solochek detail another example of Imagine Charter Schools disturbingly high rent and lease costs.
Two Tampa Bay charter schools are part of a national chain that is drawing scrutiny for lease arrangements that absorb big chunks of taxpayer funding.
The Imagine charter school near downtown St. Petersburg spent $649,312 last year in rent while the Imagine School in Land O’Lakes signed a lease on Monday for a new school with base rent of $757,989 a year.
The landlord? Schoolhouse Finance, a company owned by Imagine Schools.
It bought the Central Avenue building that houses the Pinellas school four years ago, and built the Pasco school on Sunlake Boulevard over the past several months. District records show the Pinellas Imagine spent $133 per student per month on rent while the Pasco school spent about $121 per student per month. Both figures are more than double the average for other charters in the districts.
Imagine’s lease arrangements persist despite financial problems that have created tensions with both the Pinellas and Pasco school districts and, in the case of the Pinellas school, academic performance that puts it among the district’s lowest achieving schools.
“If this were any traditional public school, there would be all sorts of questions as to why those dollars aren’t going into the classroom,” said Pasco School Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley.
The discussion is surfacing as the Florida Legislature considers channeling more public school construction money away from traditional public schools and to charter schools, which operate with public money but are overseen by private boards.
Imagine company officials say the Pinellas rent is consistent with other buildings of its size and condition. But even the president of the local school’s governing board says it’s too much.
“Personally, I feel like it’s a lot high,” said Clarence E. Davis Sr., a St. Petersburg resident and pastor who was elected president about a year ago. “We’re focusing on educating our children. And every bit of income that we get, as much as possible, needs to be focused on that.”
The two Pinellas Imagine schools are not alone in the state. Last October, I wrote about another one with similar troubling financials in Brevard county. The Florida Today report is no longer available, but here is the part which illustrates the parallel to the Pinellas charter schools:
Originally opened in 1998 as Milestones Community School, the school later combined with Stepping Stones and became River’s Edge Charter Academy. In 2008, it changed its name to Imagine Schools at West Melbourne.
The effort to expand the school came after two hurricanes pummeled the school’s former building, an old hospital, Sasse said. The school decided it was better to move than try to repair the building.
In 2008, Imagine’s real estate arm, Schoolhouse Finance, bought the land for $1.8 million, developed it — and sold it two years later to a Midwestern investment firm for $12.2 million, according to property records.
The Kansas City-based company, Entertainment Properties Trust, leases the building back to Schoolhouse Finance, which sub-leases it for $1.4 million annually to the West Melbourne school.
“We’re not in the real estate business, we’re educators,” said Sasse on the decision to build and then sell.
Imagine’s CEO, Dennis Bakke was on Rick Scott’s education transition team and as yesterday’s Times report indicates, his St. Louis schools have proved to be a major disaster. So much in fact, that Missouri’s education commissioner has told them to close.
In December, Robert Asencio, a former police supervisor of a public corruption unit, revealed the details of charter school operations like Imagine’s. Asencio writes that such practices are indeed fraud and concluded, “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.”