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Published: Monday, 7/3/2006

Groups clamor to sponsor Ohio charter schools

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The market for "sponsoring" charter schools in Ohio is getting more crowded, and with good reason.

The nonprofit groups, which include traditional school districts, that monitor and "sponsor" the taxpayer-funded schools are paid up to 3 percent of the tax dollars allocated for each school.

It's a multimillion-dollar industry that's growing yearly.

Two Toledo-based sponsors, among 70 statewide, collected more than $3 million combined in fees during the 2005-2006 fiscal year.

Additionally, most charter schools are operated by for-profit management companies that get an even larger slice - sometimes as much as 12 percent of the funding given for each child attending the schools.

State Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), who for years has claimed the state's charter school system is rife with corruption, said the public money to the companies is being wasted.

"The mismanagement and abuse of the sponsorship and then the schools would have never been tolerated under a traditional school structure," Ms. Fedor, a former public school teacher, said.

"There is no oversight because sponsors are evaluating their own work, so there is a conflict of interest," she said.

Allison Perz, executive director of the Ohio Council of Community Schools based in West Toledo, said the system works and that money allocated to charter schools is scrutinized at multiple levels.

"It's no different than what traditional schools spend on administrative costs - it's the norm in charter school world," Ms. Perz said of the sponsorship fees. "We deliberately didn't structure things to mirror the public school system so you, for example, [can] provide incentive pay for teachers."

Ms. Perz's mother - former state Rep. Sally Perz - helped create the state's charter school laws and also helped create the council of community schools, which her daughter runs for $105,000 a year.

The list of groups eligible to be sponsors includes traditional school districts, (Toledo Public Schools sponsors five charter schools), the governing board of any educational service center, a qualified tax-exempt entity that has been in operation for at least five years and with assets of at least $500,000, and the board of trustees of any of the 13 state universities, including University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University.

The council, which is actually a sponsor designated by the UT board of trustees, made $1.57 million from its sponsorship of 46 schools from July 1, 2005, to May 31, 2006.

It charged the maximum 3 percent for all of it schools, except for online charter schools, for which it charged 3 percent on the first 1,000 students, 2 percent on the next 1,500, and 1 percent for every student after that.

Ohio Virtual Academy, an online school based in Maumee, paid Ms. Perz's agency $272,424 during the fiscal year.

The Lucas County Educational Service Center, the largest sponsor of charter schools in Ohio, once had 114 schools under its watch.

Part of the reason it was able to attract so many schools was the cut-rate price of 1 percent. Its revenue from sponsorship fees for the 2005-2006 fiscal year was $1.84 million and it makes more money charging the schools for "fiscal services."

"There are a few more sponsors now and that makes things more complicated," said Jim George, director of the service center's community school division.

A state law forced the service center to reduce its number of schools down to 75, creating a rush by other groups to sign those schools to contracts.

"The legislators mandated that as a requirement," Mr. George said. "We felt that we've always provided quality oversight."

The Performing Arts School of Metropolitan Toledo was sponsored by the service center but switched to Ms. Perz's group and will now pay a higher sponsorship fee - 3 percent, or about $13,000 a year.

Kari DiCianni, the school's executive director, said she is also considering allowing the Leona Group of East Lansing, Mich., to become its management company.

That would eliminate the school from the shrinking list of "mom-and-pop" charter schools and send another 12 percent of state taxpayer money meant for the school to the private company. Officials for the company have declined to reveal how much they make in profit on their schools.

Charter schools are also a source of cash for Toledo Public Schools, which expects to make $15.1 million from the charter schools it sponsors and serves as fiscal agent. However, it will lose about $54 million in state funding for its former students who attend charter schools.

Buckeye Community Hope Foundation, which is based in Columbus, is one of the sponsors in Ohio taking on more Toledo-area charter schools, including Aurora Academy in West Toledo and Alliance Academy of Toledo near downtown.

It will go from about 16 schools last academic year to 22 in the fall, said Pat Hughes, director of the group's community school division

"Most of them will be charged between 2 and 3 percent," she said. "We are trying to give a break to schools with really good academics and also well-managed schools."

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.



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