LARGO, Fla. (WFLA) — Staff members of the Pinellas County School District want to shut down three charter schools managed by a private company that was indicted by a grand jury in Escambia County last week for grand theft, money laundering and white-collar crimes involving schools in Pensacola.
“We have very significant concerns,” Assistant School Board Attorney Heather Wallace said.
“We’re dealing with some pretty serious accusations and indictments here in the management company who still manages the school technically,” Superintendent Michael Grego said.
Executives with Newpoint announced March 8 the company was selling its business to another firm that has now backed out of that deal. No one from Newpoint responds to the district or school leaders. They also don’t respond to 8 On Your Side.
“Newpoint has vanished,” Windsor Prep Vice Chairman Chris Wenzel said. “Nobody’s heard from them in months.”
At a workshop Tuesday morning, district staff discussed the “deteriorating financial condition” facing the three charter schools and revealed a recent audit shows a co-mingling of money and resources among the three schools, all operated in Pinellas by Newpoint, as well as the transfer of some furniture to other schools Newpoint managed in Pensacola.
The grand jury in Escapbia County charged Newpoint with grand theft, money laundering and while collar crimes for the way it managed schools in Pensacola. Pinellas district staffers are concerned some of the same practices occurred here.
“We now feel the responsibility as well that if there is any indication of that activity in Pinellas that we get it to the Pinellas County state attorney as well,” Wallace said.
School board members will discuss Wallace’s recommendation to issue a 90-date notice to terminate contracts with Windsor Preparatory Academy, East Windsor Middle Academy and the Newpoint Pinellas Academy at their next regular meeting, scheduled for next Tuesday morning.
Close scrutiny of Newpoint’s schools
All of those schools in question are managed by Newpoint Education Partners (NEP), a company that has been under close scrutiny by the Pinellas County School District since February due to serious questions about financial mismanagement. NEP collected a 22 percent fee for managing Windsor Prep and ran up a deficit of close to $1 million.
“I think we’ve been thrown under the bus by the management company,” Wenzel said.
Wenzel is one of many parents fighting to keep Windsor Prep open under new management – possibly their own. Wenzel is hoping the school board will give Windsor a reprieve and go against its staff recommendation of a 90-day termination notice. “I would hope they have the heart to give us a year to turn things around,” Wenzel said.
An 8 On Your Side investigation revealed there is no documentation for $1.8 million in loans that Newpoint claims it made to the charter schools it manages in Pinellas County. Newpoint later claimed the so-called “loans” the schools have been paying interest on were actually cash advances and fee deferrals the company made without discussion or approval by the school boards that run the charter schools.
The same day 8 On Your Side confronted NEP executive Eileen Quinlan about bogus loan claims and other management questions, Quinlan announced NEP was quitting the schools. Legally, NEP remains in charge, but no one has heard from Quinlan since March 8, the same day she promised complete transparency in a brief interview with 8 On Your Side.
Why district recommends termination
In its recommendation to terminate the Newpoint-managed charter schools, the Pinellas County School District staff says the three schools continue to be in a state of financial deterioration and efforts by parents to assess the financial condition of the schools with audits have been frustrated by Newpoint.
“The management company (Newpoint Education Partners) has failed to provide sufficient information to complete this audit,” staff members wrote in backup records prepared for Tuesday’s workshop.
On Monday parents at Windsor Prep launched a letter-writing campaign to the school board pleading with the district to allow parents to wrestle control away from Newpoint and keep the schools open. They are still hoping to save their school and will have an emergency meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. to draft a school budget for next year.
“The Windsor Schools Executive Board of Directors, with the support of a large, active and highly vocal group of Windsor families, has been working diligently to separate from NEP,” wrote parent Rachel Walker. “They have recently gained control of all finances, and are taking all necessary legal steps to sever ties with all NEP subsidiaries and cohorts,” the letter reads. Read the entire letter below.
“We are making positive changes for the better,” Walker insists in her letter. However, in the view of the Pinellas County School District staff, dramatic actions taken by parents and the charter school board members since February are too little and too late to safeguard millions in taxpayer dollars that fund those charter schools.
Here is the full letter parents sent to the Pinellas County School Board:
Dear PCS Board,
Today, I learned that this Board is considering closing my sons schools Windsor Prep Academy and East Windsor Middle Academy, plus 2 other Newpoint schools. My heart sank, because I couldn’t understand how the Board can’t see how Great Windsor schools truly are. So many Positive changes are happening at Windsor schools – we have an All New Executive Board of Directors who, in less than 60 days, has taken over financial control of the school, submitted a CAP to the board, and is finishing up an independent audit. All of these actions point to an overall school Improvement. Windsor Schools deserve a chance to prove they can turn around the conditions caused by a corrupt management company. The BOD is Just Getting Started! The Board has 4 out of 5 new members that were just voted in, including 2 Windsor parents. As you well know, policy changes and legal matters take time – but based on the amount they have accomplished thus far, the projection for future success is excellent.
Windsor schools are special in so many ways…not just in meeting the goal of Charter Schools to reduce overcrowding and provide ESE students more services…but in creating a unique and robust learning environment for almost 800 mid & south county students, many of whom are socially-disadvantaged. Children are able to take accelerated courses as soon as first grade, and are completing project-based studies that have given the kids a remarkable opportunity for hands-on learning. With the new BOD in place, and self-management occurring, the schools will now have over $1M in additional funds that will be used to further enhance the curriculum. Curriculum quality is already starting to go up, including having 4 High School level classes at the East Windsor next year, as well as Spanish for the elementary schools. By giving Windsor the opportunity to self-manage, they will be able to show cost savings not seen when run by a corrupt management company – and those savings will be reinvested Directly Into the school and our children’s education.
I was thrilled to have the Choice for my children to attend Windsor. I have a son with double special needs – he’s both Gifted and has Behavioral needs. East Windsor Middle gave him an opportunity to thrive, to express himself, and to overcome and SUCCEED. Because of his experience at East Windsor, he has been offered a spot in the Cambridge AICE program at Dixie Hollins, and his self-esteem has dramatically improved. My youngest son was barely able to read sight words prior to attending Windsor, and now he’s at the top of his class is all subjects – and is inspired by Art, Music and the various enrichment programs Windsor has to offer.
Please, please – before considering to vote to close our schools – consider the 700+ students and families you will be impacting. Windsor is more than a school – it is a family that cares for it’s students, teachers and staff. We have hundred’s of parents who volunteer above and beyond what is required of them. Our children are THRIVING. If you vote to close our schools, it is a vote to punish the victims of a horrible management company’s misdeeds. Please don’t punish Our Children because of what NEP did. Please give Windsor the chance to show you we Can Succeed. At Windsor, we have a saying that we live by – “Windsor Families = Windsor Strong”. Your vote to keep Windsor Schools open is our chance to prove to you just how Strong we are. Please Vote to Keep Windsor Schools Open – give us a fighting chance to do better, as we have already begun to demonstrate to you with the new BOD and legal action to terminate NEP. We can do better. We ARE doing better. But we need YOUR HELP to continue to correct the mistakes of those before us. Please, give us that chance.
Thank you for your consideration, and for doing what’s right for our Windsor children.
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