by David Safier
North Port, Florida, could prove to be the tipping point for the Imagine Schools chain of charter schools. When the local board of Imagine North Port decided last week to sever ties with Imagine and become an independent charter named Sarasota Preparatory School, it was yet another loss for Imagine, which has been losing schools by the handful over the past few years.
And Imagine isn't taking the defection lying down. It's decided to fight back, hard.
After the Board sent an email to parents describing the break, Imagine Schools "hijacked parent email addresses from our contact lists and sent all of you an email," according to a post on the new school's Facebook page. If the national Imagine doesn't normally have access to parents' email, yet it managed to send a message to parents by hacking into the school's list, that looks a whole lot like an act of desperation.
Imagine claims the Board's actions are illegal and it still runs the school. It has suspended the school's principal and sued the Board for $15,000. There's going to be a court hearing Tuesday. Now it's performing damage control at other schools to make sure this defection doesn't turn into a snowball rolling down Imagine Mountain and carrying other schools away with it. Imagine can't sustain many more school losses and remain viable.
On February 22, Imagine CEO Dennis Bakke sent a letter to the leadership of Imagine Palmer Ranch in Florida which was copied onto the school's parent newsletter. The letter has what I've been told are factual inaccuracies, along with an underlying tone of bullying with a hint of desperation thrown in: You'd better not do anything like North Port tried! Please?
Imagine has a history of demanding absolute loyalty from its staff, especially its administrators. It's been known to fire principals for complaining about not having enough funds to educate their students, then hiring more compliant people to fill their spots. So the folks at Imagine Palmer Ranch are likely walking on eggshells, fearful of what might happen if they show the slightest support for the the school at North Port.
You can read Bakke's letter below the fold.
February 22, 2013
Dear Imagine Schools Leadership,
I'm writing to make you aware of a situation taking place at our Imagine North Port campus. As a part of our leadership team, I believe it is important for you to have factual and legally accurate information about recent actions taken by the local principal and Board. Please use the following overview to address any questions that may arise in your local campuses or with local authorizers.
What Occurred –
On Friday, February 15, 2013, the local Imagine North Port Board expressed an intention to sever affiliation with Imagine Schools. There are several fundamental misunderstandings in the Board's belief that they have the legal ability to make such a decision. For example, the charter is held by a subsidiary of Imagine Schools Non-Profit, Inc. and the Board of Directors violated the Bylaws of Imagine North Port when it took the action it did on Friday. Further, the principal, Justin Matthews, has communicated a new school name, a new school website and other operational changes that are invalid and contrary to Imagine North Port's governance documents, including the charter contract.
Our Response –
Our team in Florida has taken quick action in addressing this situation. First and foremost, they have weighed our legal rights and responses along with what is best for students, ensuring that the learning environment of children is not disrupted. Although Imagine Schools Non-Profit had the legal authority to immediately act to remove Mr. Matthews from the campus and reconstitute the Imagine North Port Board, upon our first learning of this situation we intentionally did not immediately act to exercise such authority out of consideration for students, teachers, and parents and in the hope that we could work to address and positively resolve this with the local Board members.
Instead, our team moved swiftly to take a series of actions designed to restore Imagine North Port to operating within its bylaws and charter with the least amount of staff and student disruption possible. Those actions include:
· Filing with the courts for emergency injunctive action against both Mr. Matthews and the local Board.
· Communicating with teachers, letting them know Imagine Schools Non-Profit will continue to honor their employment contracts and services, including salaries, healthcare, and retirement benefits while we await the court's decision.
· Communicating with parents, assuring them that Imagine Schools Non-Profit is not a management company, as asserted by the local Board and principal. We've shared with them that Imagine Schools Non-Profit is actually their parent company. We were there from the beginning, partnering with local parents to found the school. We have taken on long-term and multi-million dollar financial commitments to support the campus. We are committed to resolving the legal dispute so we can continue to be their partner in educating their children.
· Our team is meeting with our local authorizer to apprise them of the situation and seek their support in bringing the campus back into compliance with the existing charter.
As you can see, our actions demonstrate our commitment to positively resolve this matter with the least amount of disruption to our students, teachers, and families. We also recognize the need to protect the integrity of Imagine North Port and faithfully execute our responsibility to ensure that it is governed in accordance with the mission and purpose of Imagine Schools Non-Profit. We will continue to take all necessary action to ensure Imagine North Port is governed accordingly.
Our Commitment –
Our initial court date is now scheduled for Tuesday, February 26th. The legal and factual arguments in this situation are strongly favorable for Imagine Schools Non-Profit. We remain hopeful that the courts will act immediately and bring quick resolution to this matter.
As we await the court's ruling, we continue to reassure teachers and parents that Imagine North Port is – and will continue to remain – a part of our Imagine Schools family. We are committed to our continuing partnership with the parents, authorizer, and community of North Port.
We will keep our Imagine leadership updated as we make progress in resolving this situation. In the meantime, please be sure you share this update with those who may have questions or concerns about what is taking place.
Dennis and Eileen Bakke