Charter school supporters also angered by failing charter’s $500,000 check to principal


School district officials and state lawmakers aren’t the only ones outraged by a failing Orlando charter school that cut its principal a check, as it was closing its doors, for half a million dollars.

“This is totally unacceptable,’’ Cheri Shannon, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Charter School Alliance, told redefinED Friday.

Added Lynn Norman-Teck of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, in a prepared release: “The alleged behavior of NorthStar is the exception, not the rule. There are many examples of public charter schools, their governing boards, and administrators, with exemplary records.’’

The Orlando Sentinel reported Thursday that NorthStar High School’s board of directors paid Principal Kelly Young $519,453.36 in taxpayer dollars. The lump-sum payment occurred two days after the Orange County School Board accepted the school’s plan to close instead of being shut down by the district for poor performance.

The principal’s payout was based on a contract that paid her $305,000 a year through 2014, even though the school’s contract with the district was up for renewal in 2012, the Sentinel reported. In addition, the charter school is still paying Young $8,700 bi-monthly to oversee the school’s shutdown, the newspaper wrote.

The story has stoked criticism of charter schools, which receive public money but are run by private boards. And it comes at a sensitive time. Charter schools in Florida served 180,000 students last year and are expected to enroll twice that many by fall 2017. Proponents, including Gov. Rick Scott, are pushing for even greater expansion.

Local school district officials have called the principal’s payout “shameful’’ and “immoral.’’ Lawmakers, meanwhile, are buzzing about the possibility of new legislation that would tighten monitoring of charter school finances, including salary levels.

Charter school advocates, including the two organizations that represent the schools, agreed with much of the criticism. Shannon estimated the average charter school principal earned $60,000 to $75,000 a year. “I’m sure it is probably legal,’’ Shannon said of the payout, “but in our view it is unethical.’’

Both the alliance and the consortium said they welcome more oversight, but not at the expense of a charter school’s autonomy or flexibility.

Shannon also said questions remain about why the Orange County school district didn’t catch the principal’s huge salary earlier. Charter schools are required to submit annual reports that include financial information to districts, which act as sponsors or authorizers.

It’s not the district’s place to tell charter school operators what to pay their employees, Shannon said, but the figure should have been noted – especially at a school where, according to the Sentinel, students didn’t have a cafeteria or library or access to computers.

Mike Kooi of the Florida Department of Education’s school choice office said charter schools undergo an annual audit and submit monthly financial statements. They also complete an online accountability report that includes salaries.

But the blame lies with the charter school’s governing board, he said.

“Their job is to make sure that they’re the first line of defense, that that money is spent properly,’’ Kooi said. “This was an utter failure by their governing board.’’

Young, according to the Sentinel, served as president of the board.

Kooi said his department is looking at what can be done with the district to prevent the misuse of dollars.

“It’s tough,’’ he said. “You want charters to have flexibility and hold them accountable. When you take away that flexibility, you take away what charters are all about.’’

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BY Sherri Ackerman

Sherri Ackerman is the former associate editor of redefinED. She is a former correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times and reporter for The Tampa Tribune, writing about everything from cops and courts to social services and education. She grew up in Indiana and moved to Tampa as a teenager, graduating from Brandon High School and, later, from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing. Sherri passed away in March 2016.