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Parents scrambling as charter school closes

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:06 PM
TAMPA -

Less than a month before the school year begins, parents of nearly 200 students at a charter school that has closed are scrambling to find new classrooms for their children.

Many parents from A.T. Jones Math, Science and Technology Academy could not get answers about the upcoming school year, so they showed up at the school recently. Once there, some were told to leave by security representing Bible-Based Fellowship Church, which opened the charter school next door just two years ago.

Lisa Scanio is angry and doesn't know what she is going to do with her son, Giovanni, who is entering first grade.

"He's miserable," Scanio said of her son, who she said had a great kindergarten year at A.T. Jones. "He's sad that he won't be going back."

Principal Brenda Kearse has resigned. Most of the board of directors have quit, too. The only board member the Hillsborough County school district has been in touch with, Bob Morrison, could not be reached for comment. His voice mailbox is full, as is that for the main telephone number of the school.

There are lots of questions. But there hardly are any answers.

"There is no future for the school," a third-grade teacher wrote in an email Friday. "The school has closed. They removed the signage and the county packed up and removed everything this week."

After hearing from so many parents, district officials went to the school at 4903 Ehrlich Road on Wednesday and seized student records. The school board has scheduled a hearing for 1 p.m. Monday where it likely will vote on whether to revoke the school's charter.

"Our attorney advised us to go in and retrieve student records," said Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for the school district. "Then it became apparent that the school had basically been abandoned."

"I think it's disgusting, to be frank," Scanio said of her reaction to the closing and how it has been handled. "I feel like our children got the bad end of the deal."

The Carrollwood mother doesn't have a problem with the teachers or principal at the school. She said they were fantastic and her son already had learned to type – with the correct fingers – and was speaking some Mandarin.

She puts fault with the board of directors, who she said mismanaged funds. She said the board pledged just a couple of months ago an "angel donor" was stepping forward with $100,000 then and another $100,000 by the beginning of the next school year. She has emailed asking for updates and tried to call but has never heard a word.

Scanio said she has not even been notified the school is closed. This week, however, the lettering for the name was pulled off the school and the sign was changed to show it's now a family life center for the church.

The district is working with parents to try to find a new place for students in little more than three weeks. The first day of school is Aug. 21.

"It's left us in sort of an awkward position where families don't have a place for their children and we have to close a school right before the school year," Cobbe said. "It's really sad for those people. They're scrambling."

At the end of last school year, there were 200 students at A.T. Jones., named for the Rev. Arthur T. Jones, the senior pastor of Bible-Based Fellowship Church. Jones, too, could not be reached for comment.

The school has had a number of problems since it opened two years ago.

"They were not timely in providing their monthly financial statements, which are required by law," the school spokeswoman said.

In March 2011, district officials discovered the school had enrolled 21 students who were just 4 years old in kindergarten classes. Children entering kindergarten in public schools must have turned 5 by Sept. 1.

That gaffe on the part of the school resulted in the district cutting public funding by nearly $10,000 a month.

The charter school opened at the same site where Bible-Based Fellowship Christian Academy used to operate. That private school closed in 2008 because of low enrollment.

Charter schools are public schools that receive taxpayer dollars but are run by private organizations. The school district has no control over their day-to-day operations.

No news of the school not being operational for the upcoming school year is contained anywhere on the academy's web site.

"We are preparing your students for 2030," the website still maintained Friday.


rshaw@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7999

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