Imagine Schools’ continues its downward slide


by David Safier

First off, this post is about Imagine charter schools, the country's largest charter school chain, and among the worst. It's not about Imagine Learning whose connections with Al Melvin I've been writing about lately.

Imagine Schools has been losing schools by the handful over the past few years, some because the local chartering agencies shut them down for poor performance, others because the schools decided to split from Imagine and go it on their own. The for-profit company (that calls itself a nonprofit) is built on the expand-or-die model, and it looks like Imagine is dying a death by a thousand cuts.

This latest story is a split that's turning  into a very messy, contested divorce.

The governing board of Florida's North Port charter school voted unanimously to leave Imagine Schools and go it alone. In a letter to the parents and staff, the board wrote, "We did not feel it was fiscally responsible to continue to make exorbitant payments to the Imagine Corporate and not receive any justifiable benefit for our students and parents." By "exorbitant payments," the board was referring to the management fees which would be $890,000 next year.

The board has the right to cancel its connection with Imagine Schools, but not according to Imagine. In a jaw-dropping move, Imagine put the school principal on administrative leave, refused to acknowledge the break and sued the board for $15,000, writing to parents:

“I believe it's important to reassure you that your school and your child's teacher remain full-fledged members of our Imagine Schools family. We are the parent company of Imagine North Port and not a management company to your campus.”

Dennis Bakke, Imagine's founder and CEO, once wrote in an infamous email that Imagine owns and runs the schools, not the local board, which should simply rubber-stamp his decisions. This move is a desperate effort to stop his company's slide into bankruptcy, but most probably he's accelerating the process. Imagine's 70 other schools and the state agencies that charter them aren't likely to feel very comfortable when they hear about this.