Monday, July 21, 2014

As we were saying about 'that's where they keep the money' -- more from the League of Women Voters

Diane Ravitch's blog has an extraordinary article by Patricia W. Hall, chair of the League of Women Voters Education team in Hillsborough County, Florida. It draws heavily on the League's one-year study of charters across Florida. Good government advocates should read the whole thing but it was the deals of Ryan Construction that particularly caught my eye.
Although charter schools must, by Florida law, be overseen by a non -profit board of directors, there are many ways in which for-profit organizations have begun to highjack the charter school movement. For-profit management companies frequently provide everything from back office operations including payroll, contracting with vendors for food services, textbook, etc., to hiring principals and teachers and curriculum control; so what was sold to parents and children as a local public education innovation now looks more like national charter-chains, the “Waltmartization” of public education. According to education expert Diane Ravitch, “nearly half of all charter school students are enrolled in a charter chain school” in the United States. The top four charter operators in Florida for 2011-2012 were Academica (72), Charter Schools USA (37), Charter School Associates (20), and Imagine Schools (23). These are not the small, locally run experimental schools envisioned by the original legislation.

The real profits, however, are not in the operation of the charter school, but in the real estate development. After receiving a variety of grants, loans and tax credits for building a charter school, the for- profit chain charges ever escalating rents and leases to the school district, paid by tax-payer education dollars. The for-profit then reaps the profits when the building is sold in a few years. Meanwhile the properties with high, non-taxable, values based on claimed “commercial” revenue streams from public tax-payer dollars are leveraged to borrow additional funds to build more school buildings.

Our shining local examples in Hillsborough County are owned by Charter Schools USA. My first glimpse of Winthrop Charter School in Riverview in November of 2011 was during a scheduled visit with then Rep. Rachel Burgin. When told the two story brick building was a charter school, I was mystified. The site on which it was built was purchased from John Sullivan by Ryan Construction Company, Minneapolis, MN. From research done by the League of Women Voters of Florida all school building purchases ultimately owned and managed by for-profit Charter Schools USA are initiated by Ryan Construction. The Winthrop site was sold to Ryan Co. in March, 2011 for $2,206,700. In September, 2011 the completed 50,000 square foot building was sold to Red Apple Development Company, LLC for $9,300,000 titled as are all schools managed by Charter Schools USA. Red Apple Development is the school development arm of Charter Schools USA. We, tax payers of Hillsborough County, have paid $969,000 and $988,380 for the last two years to Charter Schools USA in lease fees!

The big prize purchased by Ryan Co. at the same time, March of 2011, was the 58,000 square foot former Verizon call center on 56th Street in Temple Terrace for $3,750,000. Ryan Co. made no discernible exterior changes except removal of the front door, added a $7,000 canopy and sold the building as Woodmont Charter School to Red Apple Development for $9,700,000! Who would not love a $6 million dollar boost in 6 months? Lease fees for the last two years were $1,009,800 and $1,029,996! Are we outraged yet? Woodmont made headlines in the Tampa Bay Times this spring as an “F” rated (FCAT score) school advertising for new students and a fired teacher reporting that out-of-field teachers and uncertified teachers were on the faculty.

We discovered that Ryan Construction Company, in collaboration with Red Apple Development and the Florida Development Finance Corporation, secured a mortgage and loan agreement for multiple sites with Regions Bank in Tallahassee for $55,800,000 tax-exempt series (the “Series 2012A Bonds”) and $3,520,000 taxable series (the Series 2012B Bonds ). This transaction was November 1, 2012. Red Apple Development had secured a mortgage from Church Loans and Investments Trust dba CLI Capital in Texas for $9,841,000 for the Woodmont Property in late 2011; they paid off the nearly $10,000,000 mortgage in 16 months (January of 2013) by virtue of the $55,800,000 “windfall”.

From The Tampa Bay Times opinion editorial April 1st, 2014 “Another area where the distinction between public and private is blurred for the benefit of for-profits is the issuing of bonds. Although Florida law prohibits charter schools from issuing bonds, Charter Schools USA has found a way. When naming Jon Hage as Floridian of the Year, Florida Trend in December 2012 contended that Charter School USA is the largest seller of charter school debt in the country. “It will sell $100 million worth of bonds this year (2012-13), Hage says. . . The bonds come with tax-exempt status because they are technically held by the non-profit founding boards that oversee the schools.”

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