NBC 6 Investigation: Charter Schools Not Making the Grade

Charter schools are so popular they’ve doubled in number to more than 600 across the state. But lately charter schools have made headlines for a rash of closings in South Florida—that aren’t just upsetting parents, but are costing taxpayers money.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but operate independently. Forty-nine charter schools have shut down in South Florida in the last five years, more than 40% owing school districts millions of dollars in tax money--and leaving parents like John and Mariya Wai scrambling to find a new school.

The Wai’s thought they found the ideal new school this year for their eight year old son, Luca Mancinelli.

“I thought it was a perfect match,” said John Wai.

The family says administrators at Magnolia School for the Arts, a new charter school in Plantation, even promised laptops for every child. The Wai’s say the new school was supposed to offer classes with challenging academics while nurturing his artistic talents.

“Luca loves photography and loves to draw. I thought it was," said John Wai.

But that's not how it turned out. When school started, the school building wasn’t ready so class moved outside the Young-at-Art museum in Davie.

“On the first day it was five hours with the sun in our faces. It was very hot,” said Mancinelli.

That first day of school was a scorcher with a high of 93. Plus, Mariya Wai says classes seemed disorganized and chaotic. The principal promised school would soon move to a permanent building and things would settle down.

“She assured me everything’s going to be ready--don’t worry mom," said Mariya Wai.

But after week two—a stunning development on the school’s website: a letter saying the school could not open and parents would need to find a new school.

“I was sitting there just being scammed and just given a story.”

“I was very mad, sad, disappointed," said Mancinelli.

“It’s horrible,” said Mariya Wai.

The closure left the Wais scrambling to find a new school for Luca -- and the Broward school district missing more than $283,000—money it supplied to get the school up and running for three months.

After Team 6 investigators began asking questions, the school refunded some money for uniforms parents had to buy. No one from the school would talk on camera and neither would anyone from the school's management company, Newpoint Education partners.

But by phone vice president, David Stiles said, “All public funds are accounted for.” He said the money is “collected” or the school board is “in the process of collecting it.”

Records show 12 charter schools have shut down in the last five years in the Broward school district, leaving more than one million dollars in taxpayer money unaccounted for. In Miami-Dade, failed charter schools did not return almost $1.5 million and in Palm Beach, the figure is $800,000.

“It’s not right. Somebody needs to step in and take a look at this and reevaluate how the charter school system’s applications are processed and monitored,” said John Wai.

The Wai’s question if it's just too easy to open a charter school. Broward school superintendent Robert Runcie says his team thoroughly vets applications-- and he regrets green lighting any school that fails. He believes the state should require security from applicants.

“Some type of surety bonds or escrow needs to be in place to protect taxpayer dollars,” said Runcie.

The Department of Education's Adam Miller defends the state's track record.

“I don’t believe it’s too easy to open a charter school and I think if you look at the data you’ll see over the last 5 to 7 years you’ve seen a dramatic decline in the percentage of applications that are getting approved,” said Miller.

Based on their experience, the Wai’s think the number of approvals should be even smaller.

"I’m very angry at this-- that they’re using our money and it’s being used to distribute to people who aren’t qualified to run this type of organization and it’s got to stop," said John Wai.

Two hundred and forty-six charter schools closed in Florida in the past five years.

As for Newpoint Education Partners, this isn’t the first time the management company has had problems. The Florida Department of Education gave its Pinellas County school an “F” last year.

The NBC station in Tampa reports that same school turned away dozens of families at the last minute because the school wasn’t going to be ready in time.

Team 6 Investigators wanted to ask Newpoint about the Pinellas school, but they did not return our repeated phone calls.

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