A new school up for charter consideration before the Sarasota County School Board has met with skepticism from school board members who questioned the school’s finances and links to other struggling charter schools within the state.
The Sarasota County School District received an application for the Sarasota STEM Academy on Aug. 1 from education provider Alliance Educational Services, which works with a number of charter schools to provide academic instruction and school management. As the only school to apply for a charter in Sarasota County this year, the application was then reviewed by the district’s Charter Review Committee, comprised of district administrators, charter school leaders and community members.
On Sep. 28, the committee compiled their findings: only 28 percent of the academy’s application met the needs of the district. The committee’s primary complaints came from inaccuracies and inconsistencies within the school’s application.
The Sarasota STEM Academy advertises itself as one of few science, technology, engineering and math-focused programs in the district. But the committee was quick to point out that all Sarasota County middle schools have STEM programs, and Bay Haven and Wilkinson Elementary Schools have a STEM focus.
The school’s administrators listed their projected enrollment as 890 students by their fifth year, but told the city of Sarasota in a site plan application that they expected 1,400 kindergarten through 8th-grade students.
They also touted their partnerships with institutions like Mote Marine Laboratory, Riverview High School and the Bobby Jones Golf Club, but offered no evidence that these partnerships existed.
In addition, they omitted the name of Justin Matthews in one part of the application, but later said he was the chief operating officer for Alliance Education Services and placed him on the organizational chart submitted to the district.
Matthews is not a new name within the Sarasota school district. In 2013, he left as principal at Imagine School at North Port — then the largest charter school in Sarasota County — after the school’s governing board voted unanimously to end their management contract with Imagine Schools, an out-of-state parent company. The nonprofit quickly filed a lawsuit seeking more than $15,000, claiming that Matthews and the school defamed the company with comments made to the public. The vote came after Matthews and staff were frustrated by high management fees owed to Imagine Schools.
Now Matthews sits as the COO, the highest position listed on Alliance’s website. He did not attend the Oct. 3 board work session on the school’s charter.
In the past two years, Alliance also has sought three charters in nearby counties with varying degrees of success.
In Hillsborough County, the charter was accepted and became Avant Garde Academy, but construction setbacks led to 250 students meeting in a church until the school was completed on Sept. 5.
Sarasota County School board members questioned Alliance’s chief academic officer, Jennifer Lucas, on these delays at the work session.
“I’m not proud of the delays, I’m not happy that it happened, but I’m super proud of the work that’s there, the staff that’s there and the families that are there,” Lucas said.
Alliance also applied for a charter last year in Manatee County, but it was denied by a unanimous school board vote. The company applied once again this year, but withdrew its application, offering no reason to the local district, according to Manatee’s director of District Support Services.
“We wanted to be able to focus on the application here,” Lucas said at the workshop. “We wanted to stay focused on Sarasota — it’s a strong school with more community support.”
Lucas did not respond to a call for comment Friday morning.
Both Matthews and Lucas are listed online with having full-time positions in North Carolina. Matthews is the executive director of Mountain Island Charter School in Mount Holly and Lucas is the managing director of Voyager Academy in Durham, according to both schools’ websites.
School board members are scheduled to vote on the charter at the Nov. 7 board meeting, but many of them expressed reservations about the application at the October workshop.
School board member Shirley Brown in particular called out Alliance for the funding of the school, which comes from the national nonprofit Building Hope Inc., according to documents submitted to the school district. The foundation loaned Alliance Education Services $2.4 million to finance the school. The organization describes itself in a letter to the board as a foundation “that works to close the educational achievement gap by giving students access to high quality public charter schools in cities across the country.”
When Brown followed up by asking for more details about Alliance’s relationship with Building Hope — concerned that the money was coming largely from foreign investors seeking citizenship through the EB-5 visa program, which offers a green card to those who invest $500,000 or more in an American project — Lucas could not answer.
“I’m only aware it’s already funded, and they came to us and said, ‘We really want you to be a part of this and to help start a school there,’” she said.
At that, Brown asked again who wanted the placement of the school in Sarasota County, and this time Frank Bolanos, co-founder of Avant Garde Academy Inc., answered that it was Building Hope but did not give more specifics.
“You basically don’t care where the funding is coming from,” Brown said. “It’s just there and you are going to take advantage of this.”
Should an issue arise, Bolanos said Avant Garde would take care of it.
“If there’s an issue that we need to look into it, we’ll look into it,” Bolanos said. “But funding for schools nationwide is from EB-5, hedge funds or national entities like Building Hope.”
If the board chooses to deny the application, Alliance can appeal the decision to the State Board of Education within 30 days of the district’s notice.
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