Hillsborough: A Fight Like No Other For Charter Schools USA

Mary Ellen Elia is no ordinary superintendent.

Her Hillsborough district is the state’s 8th largest and no Florida superintendent is as positioned politically as she.  Elia was the  only representative from the state’s traditional public schools in newly elected governor Rick Scott’s education transition team. There was a reason for that. It was Elia’s district which in 2009 accepted a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to evaluate teachers with data. It was VAM’s pilot.

But it is Elia’s presence on Scott’s transition team which is most poignant here. Also on that transition team was Charter Schools USA CEO Jonathan Hage. The two now find them facing off against in each other this morning over the future of four CSUSA facilities belonging to Hage in Elia’s district. Last night’s stunning report from WTSP reporter Noah Pransky that Elia had notified Hage that she would be closing three of his schools for a pattern of ongoing illegal oversight was indeed a show stopper.

Hage already has suffered a defeat at the hands of Elia who successfully rejected his bid last spring to open a facility on MacDill AFB. Elia effectively made the case that Hage’s CSUSA facility had sketchy and uncertain local board control. It is under these same circumstances which has prompted Elia to shudder Hage’s three other Hillsborough schools.

In the letter Elia sent to CSUSA earlier this week she reminded them that since Hillsborough’s March 22 inquiry, CSUSA has failed to “provide clarity of the governance structures” for their three facilities and that they are illegally “operating the schools.”

Hage has not been directly drawn into the fray, but his surrogates are spewing aggrieved outrage on his behalf. They have been targeting Elia personally by saying “her hostile ploy” is “ridiculous” and “without merit.”

Unlike Elia, Hage has invested his own money for access and influence. Along with his wife, other CSUSA executives, CSUSA itself and CSUSA’s real estate development arm Red Apple Development, Hage has filtered as much as $500,000 into Florida politics in the past three years. CSUSA was an early financial sponsor of his friend Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Charter Schools USA and Hage know how to play the public relations game as well as anyone. When not releasing the hounds as in their battle with Elia, they know when to keep their mouth shut. In 2013 they refused to speak with Tampa Tribune investigative reporter William March for a story about Bush’s foundations. Hage has even gone as far as threatening  blogger Chris Guerrieri with a lawsuit on two separate occasions.

Scathing Purple Musings has received no such threat, but executives of Charter Schools USA subscribe and receive email notification upon publication of each post.

Elia, if you will, is on the inside of Florida’s ed reform movement. She will be much harder for Hage to steam roll as he is accustomed in his many scraps with Florida school boards. This time, his business model is at risk. Ken Haiko, who is listed as chairman of the three Hillsborough schools, is also listed as chairman for numerous boards around the country.

In the event Elia prevails, Hage will be forced into some abrupt changes to CSUSA’s structure that could greatly affect his bottom line. He realizes that there is danger here and it may explain the current shrill outrage coming from the CSUSA camp.





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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