by David Safier
I know this story about a Florida charter owned by Imagine Schools seems distant from Arizona, but really, it's right next door. Imagine, the country's largest charter chain, runs about 18 schools here in Arizona and is one of the poster children for the charter school movement at its worst. What happens in a Florida Imagine school does not stay in Florida. It has ripple effects across the country.
I've posted recently about the story at Florida's Imagine North Port, where the school's local Board decided to sever ties with Imagine Schools and go it alone. The main reason: $890,000 in management fees that go to Imagine's Virginia headquarters instead of furthering the students' educations. In response, Imagine took the bold and desperate step of putting the principal on administrative leave and suing the Board for $15,000.
Yesterday the case went to court, and the locals won the first round. Principal Justin Matthews, who has solid support from parents, was reinstated. Since FCAT testing is going on in the schools right now (the Florida equivalent of our AIMS testing), it's important that the school atmosphere not be disrupted by the controversy. According to a North Port parent I'm in contact with, the principal and the rest of the staff are doing a wonderful job of keeping the school operating smoothly.
This story is being covered in the area — ABC News, the AP and various local news outlets were at the courthouse — and it's likely going to spread to Imagine's campuses around the country, helping to breed a climate of fear and ill will between the upper level management and the people working in the schools.
The question is, why didn't Imagine just let the school leave and avoid the controversy along with the bad publicity? After all, other Imagine schools have left in the past without such a strong response from corporate headquarters.
One reason is, Imagine has been hemorrhaging schools lately, mainly through closures. CEO Dennis Bakke built his Imagine Schools empire on a growth model, adding numerous schools each year, and if it doesn't stop the losses soon, it won't survive. Another reason is, North Port is one of the rare Imagine Schools that's an educational success story. While many of its schools across the country are failing, Imagine North Port has received an "A" rating from Florida. Losing one of Imagine's top performing schools would be a serious blow to the corporation's reputation.
The parent I've been communicating with was in the courtroom Tuesday and gave me some direct quotes from the proceedings. Imagine's lawyer accused the Board and the principal of committing "criminal acts."(A newspaper report has the lawyer saying about principal Justin Matthews, "He's trying to steal a school.") He said the school is "like a franchise" and doesn't have the right to leave the parent company Nothing could be more telling about the Imagine philosophy than comparing itself to McDonalds.
The lawyer also declared, "We have the sole right to replace the Board," which is exactly what it did. On February 18, Imagine Schools removed the school's Board and replaced it with board members from neighboring Palmer Ranch Imagine School and members of its faculty. (The lawyer said Imagine employed "the nuclear option since this school has gone rogue.") According one of the original Board members, they weren't informed they were replaced until a week later, on February 25.
The parents of North Port are firmly behind the principal and the original Board's decision to sever ties with Imagine. As of last night, 560 parents of the school's 1100 students have signed a petition in favor of the move. And the parent I've been talking with tells me these parents are prepared to leave the school if Imagine imposes its will, meaning an Imagine "victory" will result in a demoralized, half empty school.