COLUMBUS — After taking millions in campaign contributions from charter schools and their allies, Gov. John Kasich’s administration failed to crack down on exorbitant lease arrangements that Imagine-operated charters have with a subsidiary. This failure to act has allowed a system that siphons money from classrooms to an out-of-state charter operator with a shameful academic record, said ProgressOhio Executive Director Brian Rothenberg.
“The person in Ohio best positioned to know about these leases and act to stop them is David Hansen, the man Gov. Kasich appointed to head our charter accountability agency,’’ Rothenberg said. He noted that Hansen used to sit on the board of an Imagine school in Columbus and even supported its closure two years ago because of its consistently poor academic record.
Since then, a new Imagine school has opened in the same building with a similar lease, and Kasich has tapped Hansen to lead Ohio’s new Office of Quality School Choice and Funding. In his new role, paid with tax dollars, Hansen has said virtually nothing about Imagine.
“Why won’t Hansen and the governor even comment on this,” Rothenberg asked. “Our ‘fiscally conservative’ governor needs to explain why he’s allowed all this money to be wasted and all these kids to be hurt. And his charter school watchdog needs to go.’’
Nearly all Imagine schools in Ohio fail in their basic mission to educate kids, Rothenberg said. All but one received a D or F on the Performance Index of the recent state report card. The lone C went to the Imagine Groveport Community School.
Despite Imagine’s poor performance, Imagine and a subsidiary, SchoolHouse Finance, collected at least $14.4 million in public money last year for their 17 Ohio schools, according to records from the schools and state auditor. More than half — $8.9 million – covered rent for long-term leases to SchoolHouse Finance. The $5.5 million balance went to pay “indirect costs’’ to Imagine to provide certain management services.
The arrangements leave little money for classroom instruction. School officials commonly complain that low teacher salaries cause the kind of rapid turnover that undermines continuity and student achievement.
Last month, Imagine officials asked Ohio schools for statistics on teacher turnover. The response from Harrisburg Pike in Columbus: “17 out of 24 left for public school jobs with an average pay raise of $12,000. Left for money only.’’ The Woodbury Academy in Dayton lost 6 of its 12 teachers, while the Klepinger Road school in Dayton lost 6 of 34.
According to a Sunday report in the Columbus Dispatch, five Imagine schools in Franklin County received a combined $20.2 million in the 2012-13 school year. A quarter of that money — more than $5.1 million — was spent on rent, all under long-term leases with SchoolHouse Finance. A sixth school, Imagine Integrity Academy, spent an astounding 81 percent of its $440,009 in state aid on rent.
A feisty school board serving the Imagine Columbus Primary Academy (ICPA) is trying to convince Imagine to re-negotiate its $700,000 annual lease and said in a memo that it “believes that this payment is too high to sustain an academically successful school.’’
A subcommittee formed to tackle the lease holds its first meeting at 6 pm Wednesday at the school, 4656 Heaton Road. The recommended national benchmark for rent payments is 15 percent of the annual budget, not the 38 percent projected for the current school year. “Based on the 2014-15 projections, this would amount to: $188,620.50,’’ a move that would, slice the rent by about $511,380. “This is a realistic projection of what ICPA can afford to pay in rent per year,’’ according to the memo.
As the schools’ operator, Imagine receives hefty fees to provide things such as human resources administration, purchasing, marketing and audit preparation, according to state audits.
Although marketing clearly falls under the duties of Imagine, individual schools are reporting marketing expenses for July and August this year, the most current available. They include: Klepinger Road in Dayton ($76,369); Great Western in Columbus ($68,568); Groveport Community School in central Ohio ($17,343); Clay Avenue elementary and middle schools in Toledo ($16,409); and Woodbury Academy in Dayton ($15,486).
State audits offer no explanation for the expenses.
Rothenberg praised Yost for auditing the schools on time but questioned why he has not questioned the leases.
“Everything you need to know about why these schools fail can be found in the audits,’’ Rothenberg said. “The silence needs to stop.’’