Tampa Bay Times reporter Diane Steinle sees the unseemly details of a taxpayer-funded charter school as one of North Pinellas biggest stories of the year:
Life Force Arts and Technology Academy, a publicly funded charter school in Dunedin, was open for only two years, but in that time it accumulated a lengthy list of shortcomings: mismanagement, misappropriation of funds, deviations from the authorized curriculum, bankruptcy and some of the lowest student test scores in the Tampa Bay area.
Students lacked for school supplies, and teachers were paid only $85 a day, with no benefits or contracts.
Life Force was already in bankruptcy when Hanan Islam and her Clearwater company, the Art of Management, took control of the school in the summer of 2011. Islam gave teachers lesson plans based on the work of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, saying Hubbard’s “study tech” would help save the school.
However, in a series of reports, the Tampa Bay Times detailed how Islam’s management disrupted the academic environment, brought in Scientology influence and drained funds that could have been spent for education.
Life Force paid Islam’s companies, Art of Management and a study-tech promotional group she directed, the World Literacy Crusade, more than $100,000 in public funds over a span of just five months, according to bankruptcy records. Islam also moved some school events into Church of Scientology facilities.
In June, Life Force became the first Pinellas school to be forcefully closed by a revoked charter, following action by the Pinellas County School Board.
Only 50 students remained enrolled in the final weeks of the school’s operation. They had the option of enrolling in other charter schools or regular elementary schools for this school year.
Hanan Islam left the school prior to its closing. She is still listed as a leader with the World Literacy Crusade in California.
Life Force wasn’t the state’s charter school scandal this year:
* A May Miami Herald report found that schools in the Academica charter school network were “double-dipping” federal grant money. The state’s agency chief, once a close associate of Academica, found no wrong doing as the federal government “let states exercise discretion in determining when schools are distinct.”
* Orlando Sentinel reporter Lauren Roth had a December story detailing the outrageous payouts of close to $1 million that were made to the principal and her husband after the Orange county charter school closed.
* The sordid affair that was Miami’s Belare Language Academy came to an end in foreclosure earlier this month. Parents had reported that adult-themed parties were being held after hours at the facility. They became suspicious when they would arrive with their children in the morning and see empty beer cans everywhere and the building would smell of stale cigarette smoke.
* Of 36 school failures in Florida this year 15 were from charter schools. None of the failing charter schools were Title One schools or those which have high percentage of impoverished kids.
* A February Tampa Bay Times story about the extremely high rent Imagine Schools paid it’s own leasing company proved to be another embarrassment for governor Rick Scott. Imagine’s president, Dennis Bakke was on Scott’s education transition team. Earlier this month, the Pinellas school board announced it’s intentions to shut down one of Imagine’s charter schools in downtown St. Petersburg.
* Accusations emerged in a lawsuit in April that Maverick’s Charter Schools “falsifies records and fabricates students’ grades in classes the students did not attend.”
* A principal, teacher and employee at a Miami charter school were suspended in April for suspected “opening sealed test booklets, taking handwritten notes on the questions and distributing “study guides” to teachers.” Two Palm Beach county charter schools were also investigated for FCAT cheating.
Charter school advocates – even those who work for the state – bemoan such focus on bad news when so much good news is out there. But with a biased state board, two FDOE oversight agencies staffed with charter school loyalists, a handful of charter school operators in the legislature and final oversight for charter schools no longer in the hands of local school boards the only real taxpayer watchdog is the media. For a bunch of folks who have been beating the accountability drum for so long, you’d think they wouldn’t mind a glance at their stewardship.