Parents, Board at Florida Imagine charter win first day in court


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.


  1. Imagine is not nonprofit in any state. Imagine is one big pyramid scheme claiming to be non profit and operating under different property management companys that sublease the buildings and then expect payment from local taxpayers. $Hundreds of thousands of local and federal dollar$ being funnelled to the Imagine headquarters in Virgina. And their cost are going up! This principal knows what is happening to his funds but trust me he is expected to be quiet about it and not pay his teachers what they are worth year in and year out. This is why Imagine’s employee retention rate is horrible. Its all a big scam and the employees are trained to keep their mouths shut. They dont care about student grades! They just want to be good enough to stay open and get paid.

    Thank you for this blog and keeping big coporations accountable!

  2. Ray,

    You know what’s “funny?” We just moved to North Port 6/2011. When we came down to house hunt in January, we made an appointment to tour the school. I was fascinated by the “chaos” in the classrooms. The kids really seemed to be enjoying their learning time. I love the cluster idea. 2 of my other kids had been in combined classrooms int he past, and this was clearly as close as I was going to get. I did ZERO research on the Imagine name. Why? because the name of the school is immaterial to me. I did ZERO resaerch on test scores. Why? Because my older boys can’t take a test to save their necks. Well, they couldn’t at this age anyway. Both went to college on scholarships (and grants). Test scores mean nothing in the realm of what I know my kids can do and what they can accomplish. It’s far better to pull a portfolio of my kids’ work to see their progress. Neither of my kids have straight A’s, but generally are very close. This also means little to me in terms of what they are learning. I see the progress they are making in the work that comes home. My 4th grader writes a mean paper, reading comprehension late 8th grade, and college level fluency. Those are the gains that I’m looking for.

    I love that the teachers have so much freedom to use the resources necessary to teach the kids. JM doesn’t stifle the learning process by micromanaging our teachers.

    “charasmatic spell” really cracks me up. As if parents who support our school have no more mind or intellect than that. I spend up to 8 hours a week helping the teachers in my kids’ clusters. About 1/3 of that time, I’m doing things for other teachers, because their parents are no where to be found. I’d venture to say that those complainign haven’t stepped inside their kids’ classrooms since the first day of school. They have NO relationship with their childrens’ teachers or the staff. They make no attempt to engage in their childrens’ education.

    I’ve read a lot about lack of homework. If these parents knew anything, they’d know that there is no research supporting that homework increases test scores . I love that my kids get to come home and be kids. I love that they aren’t bogged down with busy work. Why on earth would I make my son do spelling homework when the kid hasn’t missed more than a handful of words in 4 years? Math is beneficial, because he really just doesn’t enjoy it. Give him a book and he’ll read until he collapses. All kids aren’t strong in all areas.

    Some complaints about our math scores. Frankly, if the DOE in Washington would stop messing with math outcomes, I think our kids would be far better off. Seriously? 2+2 will ALWAYS equal 4. If they know one way that it makes 4, they don’t really need to know 3 other ways, as long as they can back up their reasoning.

    I spoke to the head of the math department and the percentage of kids who were within 1-2 points of that magic “3” was astounding last year. Did this have to do with the school and the teachers? No, it had to do with the testing scores being changed. My own son was just 4 points from a 4, and as I said, it is not his strong subject. He puts only the amount of effort into that class as his teacher and I demand.

    I love our school for it’s acceptance of individuality in education. My son is not stuck reading 4th grade level books just because everyone else in the class is reading it.

    My prayer is for as much of this to be settled by May as possible. Imagine Inc., didn’t make our school successful, not by a long shot.

  3. As Tracy said, this school is not for all children or parents. As per our Constitutional rights, we are able to express our own opinions as some have, both in favor and agains Imagine School at North Port and Mr. Matthews.

    However, let me be clear about this as I am speaking both personally and factually. Both of my children were previously enrolled in a public school in Sarasota County, which has some great schools. One of my daughters turned out to have a learning issue that the public school could not/would not address. During tutoring sessions, which helped her, we learned of Imagine Schools in Sarasota that taught in a similar manner to her tutor, so we transfered our kids. In a very short time, grades and attitude improved greatly and stayed elevated.

    Life at Imagine School at Palmer Ranch quickly deteroriated, though, after its founding principal left after the first year. The following year was one of turmoil with an inexperienced principal, constant staff loss, and educational program promises not kept.

    Due to this we moved our kids to Imagine School at North Port. Why? We did our homework and found out about the school’s stellar academid and staff reputations, stability within the classrooms, and recommendations of other parents.

    We, too, have lived in multiple states over the years and have had the kids in public, private and charter schools. We have gotten to know Mr. Matthews and the staff since we have been here. And I for one do endorse what he and the board were doing after once again doing my homework and taking emotion out of the equation. I do feel that he would only do what is best for both the school and its students in the long term.

    And no, Mr. Matthews does not have me under his “charismatic spell”.

  4. SARASOTA COUNTY — Minutes before a judge entered the courtroom Thursday, Imagine School at North Port principal Justin Matthews was handed a termination letter from a process server who was trying to locate him most of the morning.

    However, after three hours of testimony at the Sarasota County Courthouse, 12th Circuit Judge Charles Williams ruled Matthews and the school’s old governing board can remain in place temporarily at Imagine School at North Port until the end of business day on May 31, the last day of the school year.

    This is a win for our children, again! I am praying that this will all be settled before school years end.

  5. Oh, and ladies, if you knew anything about David Safier …. it’s that he KNOWS what Imagine, Inc. is all about. Parents in Florida don’t have to tell him anything.

  6. keep in mind that 1100 students does not equal 1100 families. We had almost 600 signatures.

    My son’s standardized test scores are better than the district and the state average. This isn’t my first education rodeo. I have 2 in college and 2 in elementary school. My daughter is reading 2 grade levels ahead of where she’s supposed to be, and is slightly ahead in math. My son’s math was just 3 points shy of a 4 last year.

    I also am very firm when I tell people that my kids attend this school that this is NOT the school for ALL children and it’s not the school for all parents. My kids would not fair well in a traditional classroom setting. I’ve already been there with the older 2 kids. I know what I’m looking for and a traditional classroom was not it.

    I am not enamored by Justin in the least. He is a visible presence in our building. The kids have access to him as needed. My son frequently peeks in just to say hi and talk about what he’s doing with his vocabulary. I do not always disagree with Justin, and have no issues telling him so. We discuss the matter at hand and have on more than one occasion agreed to disagree.

    I like that he doesn’t talk to me like I have no clue what my kids need. I spent many years with my older kids fighting with traditional public schools to allow the boys to move at their progress without being held back. It was a logistical nightmare that I’m forever grateful to be away from.

    I’ve lived in 4 states, homeschooled, public schooled, private schooled and now charter schooled. Traditional public school just isn’t what I’m looking for. I’m forever grateful to have the choice

  7. emshels and jen, thanks for the comments. I know many parents support the principal and cutting ties with Imagine, but I’m sure you’re right that some disagree. When this situation is resolved, I guess we’ll find out how many parents disagree with whatever happens.

  8. and if you believe that there were not any people that took their kids out due to this situation, then younare drinking the kool aid. i personally know at least four kids that were withdrawn in my circle of friends alone!

  9. i agree, i took both of my kids out of imagine north port and was shocked to see how far behind they both were (lower and upper campus). my kids transferred from imagine school palmer ranch which was an excellent school to only gain gaps in their education that we now have to fill. imagine school north port or sarasota prep, with this principal at the helm kids are sure to fail!!

  10. This is not the whole story by far. The principal decided on Fri to resign from Imagine and get rehired my the same board who goverened ISNP, then on the same day sent out emails saying the school is now Sarasota Prep. He did this without approval from the school board and completely blindsided the parents. He also said he would have newspapers and the police a the school the following school day! This same principal was on the board of another Imagine school in Fl who was a failing school and has since closed! The story here is the principal is dishonest and does not have the kids best interest at heart. Out of 1100 kids only 500 parens signed that petition. They asked everyone in the parent pick up line and drop off line to sign. They posted it on Facebok and the newspaper facebook. They even sent the parents emails with a link to do it online. they solicited to get signatures. I have taken both of children out of this school and I am not the only parent to do so! I refuse to let them be at a school with a leader who is out of control and thinks the rules do not apply to him. Not to mention since taking them out I get to see just how far behind this school is in math! If you want to talk about how bad Imagine Inc is thats fine, but please do some research and get the facts on this school and its pricipal! Don’t just listen to one parent he has under his charismatic spell!!