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Waterset, the newest Charter Schools USA located in Apollo Beach, Hillsborough County

Two weeks ago today, on June 28th, I attended my first Charter Schools USA board meeting at Waterset, the newest CSUSA school that was built in the Waterset development on the south side of Big Bend Road in Hillsborough County. Nestled among a sprawling development that includes a clubhouse and homes for the upper-middle class residents of the area, Waterset is a handsome facility with state of the art technology and classrooms that are surely meant to lure in unsuspecting parents who only want the best for their children.

Before getting to the meeting itself, let me unequivocally state that I am not opposed to charter schools or school choice on principle. As an International Baccalaureate teacher at an A rated magnet school here in Hillsborough County, it would be dishonest of me to take a stand against school choice when I work at a choice school. And if the Florida Legislature adequately funded public education here in this state so that all choices could receive equal funding, I would probably have little to rail against.

But this is Florida, after all, and our elected officials clearly have a pet project of underfunding traditional public schools while shoveling money at charters and vouchers. So rail against this inequity I must.

 

When Al Shanker first proposed the idea of charter schools in 1988, they were meant to be a place that allowed teachers to take control and offer innovative approaches to students who struggled with traditional education. He wanted professionals who knew best to be unencumbered by bureaucratic red tape, allowed to propose and administer their own programs, and flourish alongside students who needed their help. It’s a noble idea, yet one that has been co-opted and corrupted by corporate interests.

For those who are unaware of the charter taxpayer scam being perpetuated by several privately held companies—the two largest of which are Academica and Charter Schools USA—the following is a brief primer (although you can listen to this excellent podcast with Pat Hall to gain a deeper understanding):

In 1996, Florida approved charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools. By law, these schools are considered non-profit just like their traditional counterparts and are funded with taxpayer dollars. Many of the early charter schools were small operations set up by parents or other community members who wanted to serve niche student populations who struggled in traditional settings, just as Shanker had first proposed (Pepin Academies and F.A.C.E. are good examples of charters that are genuinely non-profit here in HCPS).

Somewhere along the way, however, this model has been perverted due to a loophole in the legislation, which has allowed for-profit charter management companies to create an industry that is bilking Florida taxpayers to the tune of tens (if not hundreds at this point) of millions of dollars per year. In essence, this scam works with three key players: real estate, construction, and the for-profit charter management companies such as Academica, Charter Schools USA, Charter School Associates, etc. These companies have numerous subsidiaries that allow them to rig the game at the expense of us all. One LLC will purchase the land for cheap, another LLC will build the school, and, after the for-profit company has installed a technically “non-profit” board, this board effectively turns around and pays the for-profit management company for back office services, “management fees”, and exorbitant rental-lease agreements that are typically astronomical compared to what other buildings in the area receive on a per-square-foot basis. In the end, on average, these companies end up siphoning off nearly HALF of the public dollars meant for students and classrooms.

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Ryan Construction works alongside Red Apple Development, the construction LLC of CSUSA

Worst of all, Tallahassee’s incestuous relationship with these for-profit charter management companies are a direct result of the legislation we have seen in the last two years under House Speaker Corcoran. Manny Diaz, for example, one of the principal architects behind HB7069 that ensured more money was devoted to charters, draws a six figure salary for Doral College, a for-profit institution affiliated with Academica, the largest of these profiteers in the Sunshine State. Hello conflict of interest! Florida ethics laws are clearly a joke to these elected officials.

***Back to the CSUSA Board Meeting***

When I walked into the meeting, I was greeted by Kerianne, a woman who works for CSUSA and travels the state to act as a board liaison on behalf of the company. Although technically a public meeting, it was held in a fairly small room that included a long table with chairs around it and only three empty chairs for onlookers. Clearly these meetings are not well attended, which I am sure they would prefer.

The meeting itself was fairly quick, and the people I met were all quite friendly. I have no doubt that the administrators and parent-facilitators at the table (as well as the teachers and staff who work at these schools) genuinely want the best for the students they serve. Ultimately I believe anyone who works directly with children on a daily basis are simply giving back to the next generation and their local communities. But there were a few highlights that are noteworthy:

  • The CSUSA board liaison, Kerianne, effectively ran the meeting. The board members are simply there to go through the motions and rubber stamp everything.
  • One of the items approved regarding SB7026 was described as “lots of boilerplate insert school here”, which contained information for how CSUSA would handle school safety initiatives. Some districts are allowing them to “piggy back” on their SRO or SSO initiatives, but other counties are resisting and telling the charters to pay for officers themselves (HCPS has told them that they are responsible for the cost). CSUSA plans to use their employees as guardians or contract with private security firms if the need arises.
  • Most notably, the SB7026 legislation also includes provisions for addressing mental health, but if CSUSA doesn’t receive enough funding from the state or districts for school psychologists or social workers, the schools are to kick the problem back to the parents for them to handle privately.
  • Rod Jurado, the board chair, noted that CSUSA has been speaking with Senator Bill Galvano (the Senate President in waiting) about “seeing what we can do to get into Manatee County.”
  • Board members apparently have term limits, yet were given extensions by a vote.
  • Noted that CSUSA will be opening (or recently opened) 9 new schools, serving 8500 students (sidenote: at $7408 per-student this means CSUSA will receive $63 million in new revenue, with approximately $28.3 million being added to their bottom lines—all at taxpayer and traditional public education expense).
  • A mention of growing concern about securing bonds for the new schools being built before the interest rates went up.
  • Review of school grades for the local CSUSA schools under the board’s purview; interestingly enough, they only discussed the three schools that received an A. Waterset barely earned a C with 337 points.

And, perhaps in an unintentionally ironic yet comical statement, Mr. Jurado explicitly made mention that the schools and board are non-profit, carrying on about how he nor any other board member receive a salary or stipend, and that they should all help correct this misconception when speaking to the public. I still wonder if he would have even said it had I not been in the room.

In the end, the board meeting is largely a ruse that is intended to look like an actual board meeting. Not once was there any discussion of any agenda items, and what discussion that did transpire was mostly explanations that were given to the board from the CSUSA liaison, Kerianne. Although other meetings typically revolve around “recruitment and retainment” of students to maximize profit, most of the money talk was confined to securing bonds for their new buildings, which are owned by the companies themselves and not the public that funded them. The entire enterprise is a racket, and all taxpayers in Florida should be aware and demand better from our elected officials. The Florida Legislature should legislatively close the loophole that allows these charlatans to legally steal from public education coffers that are filled with our tax dollars.

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The one page agenda, featuring a picture of a curiously homogeneous classroom

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Nearly six months to the day after calling for Susan Valdes’ resignation due to her “foolishness” comment, the District 1 member of the HCPS school board has officially resigned to run for the Florida Legislature in House District 62.

Better late than never.

The following is an open letter to the constituents of House District 62 as well as a political playbook for her primary campaign opponents.

As noted previously in podcasts and other posts, Susan Valdes’ commitment to the Hispanic community specifically (and all minorities generally) is both noteworthy and laudable. No one can deny she has advocated for these students during her time on the board.

But numerous problems remain and all voters should beware her motivations, especially in light of her alleged “three P’s” comment and other troubling revelations from the last two years since she won re-election in 2016.

Three Ps

If I were a campaign manager for Valdes’ opponents, here are several points I would address every time when speaking to the constituents of House District 62 so that every voter knows exactly who Susan Valdes is and what she stands for:

  1. Campaign Contributions from For-Profit Charter Management Companies

Public Education is a tried and true campaign platform for any and all Democrat candidates and, typically, this party is the only one that has cried foul against the taxpayer fraud being committed by these for-profit charter management companies (learn more here). In essence, these companies establish “non-profit” boards to comply with the law, and these boards turn around and hire the company for management, back office services, pay them rental/lease agreements above and beyond market value, etc. Nearly half of the money doesn’t even get to the kids in the classrooms; instead, it goes to pad the profit lines of companies such as Academica, Charter Schools USA, and Charter School Associates.

All three of these companies gave handsomely to Susan Valdes during the 2016 election cycle and should call into question her advocacy for public education. While most Democrats are trying to defend it, she is silently cheering on its demise by taking money from privatizing profiteers.

2. Ethics Investigations

It’s no secret that Member Valdes has abused her power while on the school board, which led to the state of Florida opening up separate ethics investigations against her. Her family received free day care even though she was never technically an employee; it would appear she helped her friend and campaign manager get a job in the county for which she had no qualifications; she interfered with the open bidding process during the “cone of silence” to ensure that a local company–whose CEO donated heavily to Valdes’ re-election bid–had a second chance to change their pricing, resulting in a contract that still cost taxpayers $50,000 more than it could have had the district gone with the original bid winner, Arey Jones.

Now that she has resigned, however, those ethics investigations cease. But that doesn’t change the fact that there was enough evidence to merit the investigations by the state in the first place, and any primary opponent would be wise to constantly mention these investigations and not let her off the hook for her past transgressions.

3. Taxpayers Footing the Bill for Valdes’ Excessive Travel

As the linked editorial above notes, this has been a chronic problem since Susan Valdes was elected in 2004. In her first term she spent over $50,000 and, despite her pledge to be more mindful of it in the future, she never quit. She infamously made news again in 2016 when she spent over $14,000 from May of 2015 to May of 2016, which was more than the remaining six board members combined. This also coincided with the first time I spoke at an HCPS school board meeting, mainly because I was so distraught over her reckless use of taxpayer dollars at a time when the district was trying to shore up its reserves by cutting spending.

4. Susan Valdes – Career Politician

For the last fourteen years, Susan Valdes has served as a school board member for Hillsborough County Public Schools. This year, the Florida Legislature tried to pass legislation to enforce term limits on school board members, an effort that ultimately never passed yet was bundled into Amendment 8 by the Constitution Revision Commission (please vote NO on 8!). This amendment, however, also includes a provision that will allow for-profit charters to circumvent local school boards altogether, so despite its attempt to limit school board members to two consecutive terms–something many people across the Sunshine State want–it comes at too steep a cost to public education.

Now she wants to jump ship and try to “serve the people” (i.e. herself and her campaign contributors) of House District 62. The voters of this district should fully repudiate her and end her career in politics now before she wreaks more havoc on Hillsborough County. If you are a resident of District 62, please vote for one of her primary opponents; if you know someone who lives in 62, please share this post / information with that person.

Please vote in this critical midterm primary election.

Just vote for anyone other than Susan Valdes.

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House Speaker Richard Corcoran brings the hammer down on the status quo, or so he claims…

Long before Richard Corcoran became Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, he claimed that what was “destroying this country and this state” was “the status quo and the protectors of it.” He again recently harped on his favorite phrase–this time in relation to “institutionalized school boards”–when he penned a column that appeared in the Tampa Bay Times just over one week ago.

What follows herein, then, is a direct rebuttal to many of the points addressed within the Speaker’s column. As an independent voter who has never had a party affiliation, I am one of many citizens who feels disenfranchised by a two-party system that has been largely hijacked by extremists on both sides of the aisle. The entire Sunshine State needs collaboration and compromise between its lawmakers; our citizens have received very little of either in the two decades I have lived in Florida, however, and this is especially true during the last two contentious legislative sessions overseen by Speaker Corcoran.

The Speaker’s column begins with a bombastic claim that Floridians will have the opportunity “to vote on the best slate of constitutional amendments ever.” Much of what follows from there is largely opinion with few facts to corroborate his assertions, so let’s examine his claims individually to see how they stack up against reality during Governor Scott’s tenure in office as well as Representative Corcoran’s time as Speaker of the House.

Speaker Corcoran initiates his column by proudly stating he and Governor Scott have cut taxes 80 times totaling over $10 billion dollars since 2010. As someone who is personally fiscally conservative, this would be welcome news if my perspective weren’t already tempered by the realization that all Floridians have an obligation to the future, which requires investment in public institutions and services, something our state cannot afford to do by constantly curtailing revenue streams for no other reason beyond pandering to an ultra-conservative political base.

As opinion editor of the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Tom Tryon, noted last year during the 2017 legislative session, Florida ranks 49th in per-capita revenue generation despite the fact that we are the third most populous state in the U.S. This lack of revenue ultimately leads to frequent actions such as raiding trust funds to cover rising costs while politically saving face with the GOP’s core constituency. Tampa Bay Times columnist, John Romano, noted similar concerns in a recent piece that called these “anti-tax laws…ticking political time bombs that could blow up our future.”

All it will really take is the next economic recession–something that Speaker Corcoran surely knows is coming considering how much he touts his love of free markets as a panacea for every economic ill–and the boom and bust cycle will ensure that our consumption based revenue will collapse in on itself much like it did during the housing crisis a decade ago.

Instead, however, the Speaker is pushing for yet another homestead exemption that will further reduce revenue by $637 million dollars at a time when we desperately need funding for Medicare and Medicaid expansion, infrastructure, and public education. And what do Floridians stand to receive if this amendment passes? $250. Annually.

Taken another way: this is 68 cents per day, which will not buy anything of value in today’s day and age. To the Speaker’s credit, though, it should be noted that 68 cents per day is much better than the 47 cent per-pupil increase school districts will receive in 2018-19 for the entire school year, a move that has left nearly all 67 counties financially hamstrung.

And while discussing per-pupil funding, let’s acknowledge how abysmal it has been for the last decade despite constant claims by Governor Scott, Speaker Corcoran, and Senate President Joe Negron that this year’s “record-level” $7,408 per-pupil amount is “unprecendented” and “historic”; adjusted for inflation, the $7,126 from 2007-2008 would need to be $8,415 to have the equivalent purchasing power, a fact anyone can check with the U.S. Department of Labor’s CPI Inflation Calculator.  $8,415 is clearly far more than the $7,221 our schools received this past school year, meaning we are at least $1,200 behind and lag the national average by approximately $4,000.

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Remember, Joe: “Historic”, “Unprecedented”, and “Record-Level”. If we just keep repeating these words perhaps everybody will believe us about public education spending here in Florida.

This point is perhaps best summed up in another John Romano column when he states the following: “The Legislature likes to brag about education funding being at record-high levels, but it’s a disingenuous argument. It does not take into account inflation. It does not take into account new state mandates that force schools to spend more money. It does not take into account that Florida’s K-12 spending is woefully inadequate when compared to the rest of the nation. In short, that argument is a load of bull.”

At a bare minimum, the students, parents, and education professionals deserve a special session so that the Florida Legislature can actually provide the $400 million it pledged for school safety, rather than shuffle all the money around in the education budget and still claim to have increased funding. Far more importantly, it also begs the question of why education spending did not increase by $1.5 billion when the entire budget climbed by over $6 billion. Public education is already one quarter of the state’s budget after all; shouldn’t it deserve an equitable increase as a total proportion of the new budget?

It’s not just education that needs the funding, either. Two other areas that sorely need attention are healthcare and infrastructure. Despite being a donor state that sends more money to the federal government than it receives, Governor Scott famously rejected federal dollars for both Medicaid expansion that would have meant coverage for over one million Floridians in poverty, as well as a high speed rail that would have connected Tampa to Orlando and eventually Miami. In a recent column written by Sue Carlton of the Tampa Bay Times after she slogged through hours of traffic on I-4, she reminds us all that “in the name of politics, Scott turned his back on what would have been an important step toward the kind of modern transportation this state will need. Make that: already needs.”

Speaker Corcoran then points out the 1.5 million jobs that were created during his and Governor Scott’s tenure, yet without noting that “much of the job growth during Scott’s tenure has come in low-paying corners of the economy” or that “45 percent of households across the state…still find it practically impossible to obtain even the most everyday necessities – lacking what it takes to pay bills, afford health care, housing and transportation, regardless of regular employment.” When one adds these two facts together, it is no wonder why Florida has an affordable housing crisis.

At this point it is worth noting the about face of Speaker Corcoran, who, lest we all forget, was chief antagonist of Governor Scott for much of the 2017 legislative session, fuming over “corporate welfare” and wanting to eviscerate the funding of both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, two of the governor’s beloved pet projects. This animosity evaporated almost immediately at the end of the session after a closed-door horse-dealing session that every public education advocate knows all too well.

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Psst! I’ll sign HB7069 if you give me an $85 million dollar jobs slush fund.

After detailing how he–along with Governor Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, and Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga–appointed the 37 members of the Florida Constitutional Revision Commision, a group that has set out to attempt to install its politically conservative agenda into our state’s most precious civil document rather than listening to what the Sunshine State’s citizenry wants, Speaker Corcoran segues into hollow words about ending corruption in Tallahassee because of his “ethics reform package.”

For someone who constantly preens himself over his record on challenging special interests and ending “corporate welfare”–a point upon which he and I philosophically agree, interestingly enough–Speaker Corcoran’s words run diametrically opposed to his actions when it serves his own interests and agenda.

Case in point: HB7069 and HB7055, both of which go out of their way to steer our public taxpayer dollars to the for-profit charter management industry. Rep. Manny Diaz, for instance, who sits on both the Education Committee and K-12 Appropriations subcommittee, is paid a six figure salary for a job he supposedly holds at Doral College, which, in turn, is a subsidiary of Academica, the largest of the for-profit charter management companies. Along with Charter Schools USA and Charter School Associates, Academica heavily donates to the GOP coffers and must not be regulars on what Speaker Corcoran dubs the “capital [sic] cocktail circuit”. As Fabiola Santiago notes in her excellent Miami Herald piece, Florida’s ethics laws “are a joke” and further states “it’s a clear conflict of interest for members of the Florida Legislature who have a stake in charter schools to vote to fund and expand them.”

Speaker Corcoran also goes on to boast of his and Governor Scott’s education priorities, noting–quite incorrectly, one might add–that “Florida is one of the only states in the nation to significantly improve math and reading scores.” He is referring to the NAEP, which is small sampling of random students and schools that deals with proficiency not growth. Truth be told, all the NAEP report demonstrates is that some random students did better than other random students from several years ago.

It is noteworthy, however, that Polk School Board member, Billy Townsend, keeps pointing toward an exhaustive report done by Stanford University that clearly tracks all students across multiple grades to build a robust picture of student growth (or lack thereof) on standardized tests, which, as anyone in public education knows, is the only metric deemed worthy of consideration by the Florida Legislature. This report, oddly enough, has been routinely ignored by every single person in Tallahassee. Why? This map speaks for the entire study:

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All one needs to know is that purple is bad and represents a lack of test score growth.

With regard to the school board term limit proposal in Amendment 8, Speaker Corcoran neglects to mention that this is one of the “bundled” amendments that will also establish a state governed charter school authorization board that can circumvent the power of our own locally elected officials in addition to establishing a parallel “public” school system that will not answer to local school boards, which is only another ploy to redirect precious, scant taxpayer dollars to entities that have little oversight or accountability.

Finally, as an insult to all Social Studies teachers across the entire Sunshine State, Speaker Corcoran tells us that the Florida Legislature and the CRC have set out to enshrine civics education in our Constitution in an effort to ensure “a student should not be able to graduate without understanding what makes America great. Our founding documents and the values of our free society should not just be taught, but understood by every student who comes out of a Florida school.” This is already happening here in Hillsborough where Civics in a mandatory course that all students take in 7th grade, and undoubtedly everywhere else throughout the state. How else could Parkland students so quickly organize the “March For Our Lives” events and eloquently share their views if we had no robust civics education in Florida schools?

At the end of his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Richard Corcoran has clearly failed at what he set out to do when he took the gavel and stated he would disrupt the status quo. What he failed to realize was the paradoxical nature of his quest that did not acknowledge a single fact of paramount importance:

That Speaker Corcoran–and by extension the entire ideologically-driven, GOP-dominated Florida Legislature of the last two decades–is the status quo.

 

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Pat Hall (second from left), the Education Committee Chair for the League of Women Voters, Hillsborough County Chapter

This episode of the Teacher Voice podcast focuses on one of the most critical issues facing the Sunshine State: the citizens and taxpayers of Florida being defrauded by the for-profit charter management corporations.

The guest on the podcast is Pat Hall, a retired public educator now turned public education advocate. Pat, along with other key players in the League of Women Voters, is on a mission to expose the fraudulent ways that these for-profit management companies keep nearly HALF of the money that is meant for students in the classrooms. Our discussion covers how these companies bilk the taxpayers while peddling influence at the state and local levels. Please listen and be sure to share with other concerned citizens and public education advocates!

If you’d like to learn more about this situation, Like or Follow the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County on Facebook,  and be sure to click any of the linked articles below the LWV logo:

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2014 investigative piece by Noah Pransky of Channel 10 News about how Charter Schools USA were charging exorbitant rents and nearly had their charters pulled by Superintendent Elia

The League of Women Voters Education Blog curated by Dr. Sue Legg from the University of Florida (this link will open up to a post about for-profit charters)

An interim report written for the LWV by Pat Hall and Dr. Sue Legg about the business practices of Charter Schools USA

“Charter School Explosion” – A 7 part series written by Pat Hall and published exclusively in La Gaceta. All of these pieces are highly informative, but if you only have time for one, be sure to read part 5, “Following the Money,” which was featured by Diane Ravitch on her own education blog.

Charter School Explosion – Are They Fulfilling the Promise? (Part 1)

Charter School Explosion – Are They Fulfilling the Promise? (Part 2)

Charter School Explosion – Are They Fulfilling the Promise? (Part 3)

Charter School Explosion – Doing It Better

Charter School Explosion – Following the Money (MUST READ!)

Charter School Explosion – Accountable to Whom?

Charter School Explosion – On the Fringe of Legal?

Publisher’s note/two minor corrections: 1) SLAM stands for “Sports Leadership and Management”; 2) Hillsborough County School Board member for District 1, Susan Valdes, received $12,000 total (not as in a single day) from for-profit charter management companies or people during the last election cycle. $6,000 came on a single day (5/25/16), and the three individual checks I reference from John Hage (CEO of CSUSA), Charter Schools USA, and Red Apple Development were all donated on 12/17/15. You can find campaign contribution records for her or any elected official in Hillsborough County by clicking this link here.