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"The Hope Factory," Part 2 

Lisa Rab on a chain of for-profit charter schools in Florida — run by the brother of Vice President Joe Biden

New Times Broward-Palm Beach

In Part 1: Mavericks is a Florida chain of publicly funded, tuition-free, for-profit charter schools with eight locations — and more are in the works. Its president is Frank Biden, the brother of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, and its vice president is Frank Attkisson, a former Florida state representative. Last week's story examined Mavericks' troubled beginnings and legal battles. This week: School performance and graduation rates.

With the vice president's brother stumping for Mavericks, the charter school company this year began winning over wary district officials throughout Florida. It joined a booming business. This year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported there were 462 publicly funded, privately run charters in Florida. And 348 more have applied to open next year, according to the Florida Department of Education.

  Many of these schools are designed to earn money. Only Michigan has more charter schools run by for-profit companies than Florida, according to a 2010 study published by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. Last year, there were 145 schools in Florida run by companies such as Mavericks.

  Plenty of government grants help charters grow. Reports submitted to the state by Mavericks show their schools each receive about $250,000 a year in federal grants. And schools that use online curricula are about to get a windfall. This spring, the Florida Legislature, with the enthusiastic support of Gov. Rick Scott, passed a "Digital Learning Now" bill that establishes virtual charter schools and encourages charters to combine traditional classroom instruction with virtual courses, as Mavericks already does. There's even a state grant available for charters to start an "online learning community."

  But opening a charter school is far easier than sustaining one. In Florida, at least 192 charters have merged or shut down since 1996. Kids at one charter school in Miami were taught in a tool shed; another school turned into a nightclub after hours. A recent Miami Herald investigation found many schools have high rents and management fees designed to pad the pockets of their owners.

  Often these schools struggle academically or financially, yet their management companies are allowed to keep opening new campuses. Gary Miron, a charter school expert and education professor at Western Michigan University, says these problems are worst in states like Florida, with a large number of charters run by for-profit companies. "The problem, as I see it, is that policymakers and legislators have not put in place the right incentives, funding mechanisms and safeguards to ensure that these companies serve the public good," Miron says.

  Mavericks' academic failures are glaringly apparent, despite the upbeat assurances of company managers. When asked about the schools' graduation rates, Mavericks manager Lauren Hollander declined to provide a hard figure. She says the numbers fluctuate when students transfer back to their home high schools.

  "Our actual percentages are very, very nice," she says. "But it's also unique to each school. We're doing a good job."

  Biden says, "We just graduated almost 200 people in one location."

  But figures from the Florida Department of Education paint a different picture, showing that Mavericks schools have a poorer graduation rate than traditional public schools in Florida. They show Mavericks' best school, in Kissimmee, graduated just 43 percent of the eligible kids in June 2011. Other Mavericks schools performed far worse. Mavericks High in North Miami Beach had a 12.7 percent graduation rate last school year. In Fort Lauderdale, the rate was 13.1 percent, Largo's was 7.2 percent,and in Homestead it was 4.5 percent.

  On Florida's state report cards, Mavericks schools in Miami-Dade, Pinellas, and Osceola counties have all scored "incomplete" because not enough students have taken the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test). Hollander says she expects the FCAT grade to change as more students enroll.

  Deborah Higgins, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, said there is no policy that requires a school to be disciplined or shut down if it continues to earn grades of "incomplete." That means Mavericks schools can keep operating with little oversight of academic progress.

  Part of Mavericks' problem may be the teaching model: Parking troubled kids in front of a computer and hoping they'll learn — instead of watching the latest Kardashian viral video on YouTube. Research shows that for virtual learning to work, "Students need to be very self disciplined and have supportive environments," Miron says. "If they're not self-guided and self-motivated, then it's gonna be a hard match."

Meanwhile, recent lawsuits filed against Mavericks raise questions about whether any of the schools' statistics can be trusted. In February and June of 2010, two former employees filed whistle-blower lawsuits against Mavericks regarding its Homestead high school. Teacher Maria Del Cristo and career coordinator Kelly Shaw allege the school inflates attendance records to receive more money from the school district, exceeds class size limits, and "regularly fails to accurately post grades and report student enrollment" in the district's computer system, in violation of state law.

  State school funding follows students, no matter where they are enrolled. When entering data into the computer system, the lawsuits allege, Mavericks often says students are enrolled in courses they're not actually taking in order to get more funding. Even more alarming, Shaw and del Cristo allege the school does not offer a "Florida High School Diploma."

  Records show Mavericks schools are not accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement. This means graduates can attend community colleges, but they may have trouble getting sports scholarships or federal grants.

  Students would ask Shaw if they could check their records, to see what courses they were enrolled in. But the school principal, Candace Chewning, told her to "calm the wildfires" and deny students and parents access to the records, Shaw alleges.

  Chewning also chastised Shaw for warning students they might not be accepted into certain programs with a Mavericks diploma. According to Shaw, her boss told her she was spreading "poison" in the school, and Mavericks might close because so many kids were leaving. Shaw was fired in February 2010. In April 2010, Del Cristo called the Miami-Dade school district to complain about students' grades and attendance records being altered, among other allegations. She was fired the next month. (Dale Morgado, attorney for Shaw and Del Cristo, declined to comment, saying he's in settlement negotiations with Mavericks.)

  Mavericks officials have filed motions to dismiss both lawsuits. Biden says Mavericks schools issue Florida diplomas, but not every child graduates. When New Times contacted Hollander to ask more detailed questions about the lawsuit and other issues, she never responded.

  Mavericks' paper trail is also troubling. Accountability reports, submitted by Mavericks to the state, contain bizarre financial figures. In 2010, the reports show zero dollars in revenue for the school in North Miami Beach, while both Mavericks schools in Miami-Dade claimed to be paying most of their teachers less than $5,000 a year.

  Tammy Lara, principal at Mavericks High in Homestead, says those salaries are no longer correct. "Our salaries are very competitive to Miami-Dade County public schools," she says.

  But Lara was not head of the school last year when the reports were submitted and didn't know why the listed salaries were so low. Hollander said she was unfamiliar with the state reports and would have to review them before commenting. When emailed the reports, she never responded.

Money has long been a problem for Mavericks. At the Fort Lauderdale Mavericks in June, independent auditors found the school met state criteria for a "financial emergency," with a net deficit of at least $520,000. At the same time, an audit showed that the North Miami Beach Mavericks was $400,000 in debt and had borrowed from the Mavericks management company to stay afloat. The state department of education also required the Mavericks school in Pinellas to create a financial corrective action plan.

  Mavericks officials say Fort Lauderdale's debt was temporary, because the school's original enrollment was low. Hollander wrote a check to cover the budget hole, and the school is "now on its feet and very healthy," Biden says.

  By law, school district officials can shutter charter schools with serious academic or financial problems. But Mavericks has managed to avert the worst penalties by submitting plans to correct its finances and by earning "incomplete" instead of "D" or "F" on its state report cards. Plus, Florida law is designed to encourage charters, not shut them down. Even failing schools are given time to improve before they are closed.

  John Schuster, spokesman for the Miami-Dade school district, says no action has been taken against Mavericks there. "The district monitors charter schools' academic and financial performance. In general, it takes two years of poor performance data to result in closure."

  Both Miami-Dade Mavericks schools have been open since August 2009. The Broward and Palm Beach schools are newer, and thus do not have a two-year track record.

  The management fees paid by the individual schools to Mavericks in Education Florida have been a source of controversy. School district officials want to know what the fee will be before they approve a new school, but it's not always clear. Last year, the management fee was $267,000 for the Fort Lauderdale Mavericks school. In 2010, Mavericks in Homestead paid the management company $418,000, or 17 percent of its state funds. In Palm Beach County, Mavericks' fee is not specified in its contract. Hollander says the fee varies based on enrollment, but it's capped at 11 percent of the state funding the school receives.

  According to Biden, Mavericks turns a profit because of its savvy real estate choices. "It's all about the buildings we buy," he says. "Certainly the operation of the schools isn't profitable."

  But most of the time, Mavericks isn't buying buildings. It's striking deals with private landlords, then charging individual schools rent of $350,000 per year for five years, regardless of the price of the building. That's the case in Homestead, North Miami, Kissimmee and Pinellas. In Homestead, the school building's current market value is $1.2 million, but the school is on the hook for $1.75 million in rent over five years.

  That sum, combined with its management fee, means the Homestead school paid 28 percent of its revenue to Mavericks in Education in 2010.

  Hollander says Mavericks does not want to be the go-between, collecting rent from the schools, but it's tough for a landlord to "wrap his mind" around a five-year lease.

  Mavericks cut out the middle man when negotiating a lease in Fort Lauderdale. Charles Barnett, Mavericks' secretary, bought a building at 424 W. Sunrise Blvd. for $2.2 million. Barnett, a lawyer in Palm Beach Gardens, purchased the building with a newly formed corporation called School Property Development LLC. The manager of the corporation is Charles Berle, who also sits on the board of the Mavericks school in Palm Springs.

  Hollander says Barnett bought the school because they couldn't strike a rental deal with the previous owner.

  According to Miron, the Michigan expert on charter schools, it's common for "separate but connected companies" to own the buildings that house charter schools. "A lot of profit comes from equity accrued in the facility, or above-market leases that are paid to the company that owns the facility," Miron says.

  To lease the Fort Lauderdale property, Barnett's company, School Property Development, charges Mavericks High of Central Broward rent. The cost: $350,000 a year.

Yet not every school district was eager to put faith in Mavericks. Hernando County officials turned down Mavericks' charter application three years ago, partly because of questions about Mavericks' spending. And for two years, Palm Beach County school district officials refused to approve a Mavericks school, saying the charter applications didn't meet state standards.

  In February, district staff once again recommended denying Mavericks' application to open the school in Palm Springs. Staffers said the school's budget projections were "not realistic," objected to the management fee not being specifically defined in the contract, worried about the Pinellas school's financial difficulties, and noted that four existing Mavericks schools "contain deficiencies in their Accounting Policies and Procedures."

  "The District prepared an analysis to reflect missing personnel and other operational costs," staffers wrote to the School Board. "The net result is a loss putting the charter school at risk for being in financial emergency."

  If these monetary concerns were not enough, then-Superintendent Art Johnson said history had taught district officials to be strict in their evaluation of charters. "We need to make sure that we don't have people coming in here with an educational mission and then turning it into a business plan to make money," he told the board.

  Biden later told New Times he met with each school board member before the vote, telling them Mavericks would be an "adjunct" to the public schools. "We, over a period of a year, convinced everybody in Palm Beach County of of our good intentions," he says.

  He also points out that every time a student graduates from Mavericks, they boost the school district's overall graduation rate. "So naturally they [the districts] love us."

  Palm Beach school board members, presiding over a district where so few minority students graduate, swooned over Mavericks' pitch to help at-risk kids.

  "I want to give every opportunity I can to underprivileged kids," said board member Monroe Benaim at the public meeting in February.

  "I'm willing to take a risk," board member Karen Brill chimed in.

  "We've got to be able to not leave anybody behind," added board member Marcia Andrews.

  School Board member Chuck Shaw abstained from the vote. As a former charter school principal, he said he'd done some "volunteer work" for Mavericks and helped them with their charter application. He later emailed a statement that stated: "I was not involved in the writing, editing or creation of their charter, just gave my opinions since I believed that their focus was good." What Shaw didn't mention at the public meeting was the money he'd received. At a 2010 campaign event, he collected $750 in campaign donations from Mavericks employees and their families.

  At the School Board meeting, a parade of Mavericks officials and supporters spoke in defense of the school. There was prominent African-American pastor Cedric Mays of the Baptist Ministers Conference of the Palm Beaches, and Atkisson, the former state representative. Of course, Biden was there too, invoking his family's political power.

  "I give you my word of honor, on my family name, that this system is sustainable," he said. "This school will be sustainable."

  The board approved the school 5-1, with only one member dissenting. Dr. Debra Robinson said she supports Mavericks but thought it was unfair for the board to overrule staff objections for one school, without re-evaluating all the other charter schools that had been recommended for denial this year. She even called out Biden for his influence on the vote.

  "Because people have big dogs that lobby for 'em, we are able to see better?" she said. "No. I see it as an exception to the rules."

At the August ribbon-cutting at Mavericks High in Palm Springs, Biden finishes his speech. A young woman wearing silver hoop earrings and sparkling pink Converse sneakers takes the mic. "All I want to do is get my education," she tells the crowd. She takes a deep breath and begins to sing.

  "I'm focused, I'm ready to win," she sings, her voice trembling and clear. "If I stumble, I won't hit the ground. They can't bring me down."

  Now the room is hushed. The next speaker is petite and striking, with closely cropped hair, ebony skin, tattoos on her arm, and a stroller for her baby. "I want to be a great role model for my daughter," Ebonee Parker says, her voice breaking with tears. "She's the reason why I'm standing here before you."

  Parker leaves the stage, but the parade of performers continues. Eight Mavericks students stand to recite the school's pledge. They are a Benetton commercial of racial diversity — blond, brown, male, female. "I am the person that directs my destiny," they pledge. "I am the best that this world has to offer. I will believe in myself even when others do not."

  Finally, a small band of African-American men, including Pastor Mays, performs another song they wrote for the occasion. "You've got something good, you've got Mavericks High!" rings the chorus. The crowd begins to clap. Harmonizing voices fill the room, bringing warmth to the stale fluorescent lights and linoleum floors.

  By the time everyone heads outside to cut an enormous turquoise ribbon, Liz Downey, the school secretary, has tears in her eyes. She has good reason to celebrate. Another Mavericks school was approved in early November in Orange County, and two weeks later Palm Beach County district officials would recommend approving three more. However, the Palm Beach vote was postponed after New Times published a blog item about the schools.

  District spokesman Nat Harrington says board members delayed the vote because they wanted more information about the grades and graduation rates at the eight existing Mavericks high schools in Florida. "Based on the information staff has received to date, there are reasons to be concerned about the strength of Mavericks' academic program," Harrington wrote in an emailed response to questions.

  After cutting the ribbon, the crowd heads inside for cookies and tours of the school. Students fill the cubicles that weeks earlier had housed only rows of computers. Their teacher urges the class to listen carefully, because they have visitors.

  A student sitting by the window looks confused. She has been stuck in class studying while all the singing and speech-making filled the lobby.

  "What they havin'?'" she asks a random visitor. She had no idea there was a celebration today.

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  • "The Hope Factory"

    Lisa Rab on a chain of for-profit charter schools in Florida — run by the brother of Vice President Joe Biden
    • Jan 17, 2012
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