BROWARD SCHOOLS

Financial problems close three charter schools in Broward

 

Parents, students and teachers are unexpectedly scrambling to find a new school.

mrvasquez@MiamiHerald.com

The abrupt end was punctuated by locked doors and silence at one school, and with a chaotic gathering of parents and students at another.

But the story at three Broward charter schools was essentially the same on Friday: financial problems had led to closure, leaving parents and students to unexpectedly scramble to find a new place to enroll.

“We should have had way more time to look for other schools for our kids,” said Nicole Williams, whose son Alfonso was a 10th-grader at Eagle Charter Academy in Lauderdale Lakes, one of the three schools now closed. Also closing this week were the nearby SMART Charter School (run by the same company as Eagle Charter), and Touchdowns4life Charter School in Tamarac, which was founded by former Miami Dolphins running back Terry Kirby.

Williams said the school sent her a notification letter on Wednesday.

Friday afternoon, Eagle Charter’s main office was filled with parents requesting withdrawal documents and other assistance, but school administrators appeared at times overwhelmed.

“I’ve been in there for three-plus hours,” said parent James Chester, who ultimately left without his son’s withdrawal forms because he had to get to work. “Every parent yelling, screaming, they didn’t have anything in order.”

Switching schools after the academic year starts is a difficult process, and students are often shut out from the most-coveted schools as application deadlines have passed. The more than 400 students who attended these three schools are all eligible to attend the “home” public school in their neighborhood, but dissatisfaction with that home school is what led many families to pick a charter school in the first place. School district officials said it’s possible students could attend a district school other than their home school, and parents are urged to call 754-321-2380 for more information.

Teachers at the three closed schools, meanwhile, were suddenly tasked with finding new work.

“It’s a little more difficult to get a job now than it would have been in the summertime, of course,” said Ashley Interlandi, a reading and language arts teacher at Eagle Charter.

Interlandi did, at least, get her Friday paycheck. Teachers at Miramar’s Parkway Academy charter school, which closed over the summer, were stiffed of their final month’s pay.

During an on-campus visit to Eagle Charter, school staff could not immediately provide an administrator to comment for this story. A call to the cell phone of Edward Miller — CEO of the charter management company for both Eagle and SMART — went unanswered, and his voicemail was not accepting messages.

At Touchdowns4life, administrators were equally hard to reach. The school’s campus, located in a Tamarac strip mall, was darkened and locked, and no one returned a message left on its voicemail.

As for the schools’ academic performance, SMART got a B in 2011, but dropped to a C this year. Touchdowns4Life slipped from a C to a D. Eagle got a C last year. Its 2012 grade hadn’t been calculated yet, as it was also a high school and those grades have not been released.

Broward school district officials said Eagle and SMART shut down because of shrinking enrollment, and district spokeswoman Tracy Clark said Touchdowns4life’s closure was due to “funding” issues — likely also enrollment-related, since charter schools are funded almost entirely based on the number of students who attend.

Annual audits for all three schools show deep financial troubles. A June 2011 audit of Touchdowns4life showed the school was nearly $24,000 behind on its rent, was accused of owing $20,000 to the company that supplied its computer equipment, and had been charged more than $4,000 in bank overdraft fees.

The parent company of Eagle and SMART, according to the most recent audit, owed a $1.2 million debt to the IRS for unpaid payroll taxes.

Nationally, about 12 percent of charter schools opened in the last 20 years have closed, but in Florida, that closure rate is double, according to state figures. Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature has strongly encouraged charter school growth — even allocating school construction dollars exclusively to charters. But critics of charter schools complain the state isn’t doing enough oversight.

Lynn Norman-Teck, a spokeswoman for the pro-charter Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, said the latest Broward closures aren’t a cause for concern. Parents at these schools “voted with their feet,” Norman-Teck said, and decided to send their kids elsewhere. The best charters can have waiting lists in the thousands, she added.

“A closure, although it’s terrible from a parent point of view ... I see it as a system that’s working,” Norman-Teck said.

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