Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Imagine Schools Get Sharp Look

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Imagine Schools Get Sharp Look

Article excerpt

SARASOTA

SUPERINTENDENT: Seeing action plan within 30 days for two county campuses

A pair of charter schools on shaky financial ground have raised red flags and enough concern for Sarasota County school officials to intervene, documents show.

Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Lori White asked the two schools, affiliated with the Imagine national charter chain, for an action plan within the next 30 days.

"It is the view of the district that the continuation of deficit spending ... is a deteriorating financial condition that causes us to question the ability of the school to continue operations into the future even with your financial arrangement with" the schools' parent company, White wrote in Sept. 8 letters to both schools.

"I would be remiss in my fiduciary responsibility if I did not address your financial condition and your continued need for supplemental funding from the Management Company."

Imagine Schools at North Port and Palmer Ranch have hemorrhaged money in recent years, requiring the parent company in Arlington, Virginia, to give them money to make up the deficit.

Sarasota County officials voiced a concern about the charter schools' fate if the parent company's generosity should fade.

North Port and Palmer Ranch are "no longer in a deficit situation, which is a good thing. That does provide the district with some level of comfort to have that fallback plan," said Mitsi Corcoran, the district's chief financial officer.

"But at the same time, there's always that concern: When does it end? Will that end?"

Struggles abound

If the charter schools fail and close, the 430 Palmer Ranch students and 1,040 North Port students will likely return to their districted public schools or find some other option.

Charter schools are publicly funded but run by independent boards outside the Sarasota County School Board, although the district retains oversight in approving and revoking charters.

Across the country, several Imagine schools have shut down because of financial problems or academic struggles in recent years.

At Palmer Ranch, the school was given $238,869 and $196,414 from its parent company to cover losses for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, respectively, according to Corcoran, who said the school was unable to afford repayment.

The management company agreed to gift a total of $1.5 million to cover losses, according to a financial agreement letter, Corcoran said.

It appears Palmer Ranch will need nearly $1.08 million more to avoid a deficit for the 2014-15 year, crossing that $1.5 million line.

"From our perspective, this isn't looking like you're financially healthy," Corcoran said about Palmer Ranch. "We're not sure what happens next. That's why we're asking the question. We're just monitoring them. We are concerned from a fiduciary responsibility. …

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