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Orchestrated Chaos: Is local school board dysfunction led by Ziegler and Robinson part of larger scheme to discredit public schools? – by Jon Susce
David Brain is the head of a large real-estate investment firm called Entertainment Properties Trust. In 2012, Brain appeared on CNBC in to discuss the real estate outlook nationally and with a specific eye on charter schools around the US. He explained that charter schools are “…. a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product.”
Later on during his interview, Brain was asked about the most profitable sector in commercial real estate investment in the US right now. Considering the gradual death of retail, it was an important question at the time and remains so today.
Brain’s response to this question was pretty shocking: “Well, probably the best place to invest right now is in the charter school business. It’s our highest growth and most appealing sector right now of the portfolio. It’s the most in demand and the most recession-resistant. And a great, sustainable opportunity set with 500 schools starting every year. It’s a two and a half billion dollar opportunity set in rough measure annually.”
And there it was. Who knew?
Well actually, as it turns out, a lot of people know. And there are some here locally and scattered around the state of Florida that have known for a long time and have been building a juggernaut to capitalize on this opportunity. There are a few specific actors worth highlighting.
John Kirtley of Tampa, Fernando Zulueta of Miami and Gary Chartrand of Jacksonville are putting local Florida schools up for sale. The scheme will continue to further migrate state funds to privately run schools while giving more tax breaks to businesses and big corporations.
In Florida, the vouchers program gets $550 million this year. State statutes allow for an automatic 25% annual increase. As a result, funding will more than double every 4 years. $1 billion by 2020, $2 billion by 2024, $4 billion by 2028 and explode to $16 billion in 20 years!
This “Pay to Play” scenario indeed borders on the criminal. In fact, a similar scheme to the one mentioned above led to the incarceration of the former Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives Michael Hubbard. He was sent to state prison for a term of four years for, among other things, accepting ongoing payments from a charter school services provider. The scandal came close to sending Kirtley’s business partner, former Governor of Alabama Robert Bentley to prison as well.
How can the Florida State Legislature continue this type of program and still cut the corporate income taxes and taxes in corporate leases if they earmark those dollars for vouchers? What about other state needs while all these funds are being diverted for their private school friends?
KIRTLEY’S PAC CONTRIBUTES $MILLIONS
Kirtley, who is a Tampa based venture capitalist, controls a political committee in Florida that spent nearly $2.4 million to influence races in 2010 and 2012. He spent over $1.5 million in the 2014 election cycle and the same, if not more, in this recent election cycle.
Kirtley’s political committee, “Florida Federation for Children” (FFC), has channeled these millions into political advertisements and direct mail to assist favored candidates since 2010 who in turn are expected to promote his “Step Up for Students” program.
Charter school voucher and online education companies poured more than $2 million into last fall’s political campaigns in Florida; primarily those of Republicans who are again demanding more alternatives to traditional public schools. Kirtley alone donated $100,000 to Governor Rick Scott.
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Kirtley has personally given $769,267 to Florida legislative candidates since 1989.
ZULUETA AND ‘ACADEMICA’
Fernando Zulueta is another heavy hitter in Tallahassee and in local races; and for a good reason. His company, Academica, is the largest private operator of charter schools in the state. The South Miami company receives more than $9 million a year in management fees just from its South Florida charter schools — fees that ultimately come from public tax dollars.
But Zuluetas’ greatest financial success is largely unseen: Through more than two dozen other companies, the Zulueta family controls more than $115 million in South Florida real estate — all exempt from property taxes as public schools — and act as landlords for many of Academica’s signature schools, records show.These companies collected about $19 million in lease payments last year from charter schools — with nine schools paying rents exceeding 20 percent of their revenue, records show.
Campaign contributions from these money men to Scott and Florida legislators have paid off. $91 million dollars for fixed capital outlay for Florida charter schools, as part of the Governor’s proposed 2015-2016 “KEEP FLORIDA WORKING” budget, was passed by the Florida Legislature.
SCHOOL DISTRICTS HAVE LIMITED CONTROL OF CHARTER SCHOOLS
Charter schools are public schools, but unlike traditional public schools, charter schools don’t take orders from the locally elected school board. Instead, they’re independently run by an appointed board, which often is selected by the charter school management company which runs the school. School districts have limited oversight of charter schools’ finances and academics.
In Florida, more than 250,000 students now attend charter schools, including more than 12,250 in Duval County. In Duval County nearly $70 million in state revenues went to charter schools in the 2014-15 school year.
In total, Florida has spent more than $760 million on charter schools buildings, operations, and expenses since 2000, according to an Associated Press analysis. That includes $70 million that went to charter schools which later closed, although little money was recouped by the 30 districts overseeing those charters.
DO CHARTER SCHOOLS EVEN MAKE SENSE?
Diane Ravitch was appointed by George HW Bush as Assistant Secretary of Education under Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. Ravitch, is a Wellesley College graduate and a Columbia University PhD recipient, as well as a former Stanford University Hoover School fellow.
Her assessment of the charter school phenomena is blunt. “The charter school and testing reform movement are studded with ‘myths’ started by billionaires for the purpose of destroying public education.”
Chartrand and Kirtley Charter School type programs are described by Ravitch as being: “low-performing charters, frauds, involved in corruption, having incompetent charter operators and engaged in exclusionary policies practiced by charters that result in poor results and divert much needed funding from public schools into private hands.”
Ravitich further stated, “They (Charter Schools) are destroying our education system, blowing it up by their stupid policies, high-stakes testing, “utopian” goals, “draconian” penalties, school closings and more.”
CLOSE TO HOME
Kirtley’s PAC, Florida Federation for Children (FFC) has raised over $4 million and has contributed all of that $4 million to influence politicians in Florida and Alabama. This money is spread across the state and there are numerous recent examples where the impact is being felt. Sarasota’s experience typifies what is happening.
In the 2016 School Board race, money from Kirtley’s PAC was deployed strategically to attack incumbent Caroline Zucker in her race against Teresa Mast. Already the board was comprised of two very supportive allies in Eric Robinson who was running unopposed and seated member, Bridget Ziegler. So the effort to remove Zucker and replace her with Teresa Mast was of the highest priority.
Mast, who ultimately lost the race, aligned closely with Eric ‘the prince of dark money’ Robinson. In fact, Robinson at one point controlled one of the PACS which funneled over $30 thousand into the Mast campaign. So a school board member, moving money around to help a candidate defeat another school board member.
Robinson is also tied to a Jacksonville based billionaire, Gary Chartrand. Another major financial supporter of charter schools, Chartrand contributed heavily to the Rick Scott campaigns for Governor. And in 2013 was appointed by Scott as Chairman of the Florida State Board of Education. Although no longer chairman, Chartrand remains a major influence on the education board.
Chartrand is an active contributor to Eric Robinson controlled PACs. For example, Jacksonville based PAC, “Build Something That Lasts”, is managed by Robinson with Chartrand as a major contributor. It has funneled $100,000 into two local Robinson managed PAC’s based in Venice: “Making A Better Tomorrow” and “Sarasota Citizens For Our Schools”. The latter of which spent over $30k in support of the failed Mast candidacy.
In addition to the thousands of dollars coming from Tampa, Jacksonville and beyond to control the recent Sarasota County School Board election, thousands of dollars have come from the following multimillion dollar developers corrupting Sarasota County Government:
Pat Neal: seven $1,000 contributions and two $500 contributions; Carlos Beruff: sixteen contributions with six $1,000 contributions and ten $200 contributions; Randy Benderson: four $1,000 contributions; James Gabbert: six contributions totaling $3,800; Gary Kompothecras: seven $1,000 contributions; Rex Jensen: three $500 contributions; Bob Waechter: six, $1,000 contributions.
So what does this all mean? Where are we headed in Sarasota County?
Recent events at the Sarasota School Board as reported by the Phoenix highlight the drama as it unfolds. Ultimately, they are the proof of the cancer that is being spread by this twisted public/private partnership surrounding our educational system.
It is apparent that private interests have taken a very unhealthy interest in the future of public education and government set asides. And their interest has little to do with the health of our children and everything to do with the health of the real estate development and management economy.
Eric Robinson and Bridget Ziegler have both been demonstrated as being accomplices in an effort to effectively undermine the school board and paint a picture of dysfunction, setting the table for future elections and what they would hope are sweeping changes which would give them a majority or unanimity of decision makers. Were this to happen, as it is happening in several districts around the state, there is a very real chance that publicly funded, privately managed schools will tip the balance.