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Charter school parents queue up in its defense

They plead to keep funds flowing to Pepin Academy, a school for learning-disabled pupils.

By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003

TAMPA -- Some were angry and some were emotional. But most of the parents who spoke Tuesday night talked about how the embattled Pepin Academy charter school has helped their children -- unlike regular public schools.

"These are fairy tales coming true," said Cary Sipiore, whose 16-year-old daughter attends the school. "It wouldn't be possible without Pepin."

About 20 parents begged Hillsborough School Board members not to hurt funding for the school, which is open to learning-disabled children in grades 6-12. A review of the school's funding is pending.

Pepin is one of Hillsborough's 16 charter schools. It receives public funds, but is overseen by a private, nonprofit board of directors.

Hillsborough school officials think the 4-year-old school is receiving more state funding than it should. They wonder why the school gets two and three times more money than Hillsborough did to educate the same children.

Superintendent Earl Lennard said he is awaiting the findings of a state review.

"There's no effort to shut Pepin down," he told the parents.

Lennard said the district has a responsibility to make sure the school is receiving the correct allocation from the state.

The parents spoke about what their children are getting.

Tom Mowrey said his son struggled with reading and was told he would never be able to pass standardized tests or earn a regular diploma.

"I'm here to tell you they were wrong," he said.

"You should be as proud of Pepin as I am," parent Rick Boyette told board members.

In other business, the School Board received a report from a community committee that examined a 121-page audit of the school district's maintenance and construction department completed by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young.

The committee noted improvements in the troubled construction and maintenance departments, but suggested other changes.

The committee recommended the district establish minimum standards for building new schools, review the prior performance of contractors and implement preventive maintenance programs for roofs, heating and air systems and electrical wiring.

Many of those recommendations aren't new.

The committee grew out of allegations made by longtime school administrator Doug Erwin, who accused the district of widespread waste and shoddy construction.

His allegations, made public in fall 2001, embarrassed the school district, spurred several internal investigations and brought about numerous changes in the way schools are maintained and built.

In other action, the School Board named Wharton High School assistant principal Denny Oest as principal of Brandon High School and Burns Middle School assistant principal Josie Sanders as principal of Marshall Middle School.

Both positions were vacant after their current principals were transferred to other schools. Oest's position takes effect Monday and Sanders' position begins Feb. 24.

The board suspended two teachers without pay: Franklin Middle School history teacher John Greene, 35, and Hillsborough High School cosmetology teacher Sophia McKenzie, 30.

Greene was arrested and charged with marijuana possession. McKenzie was arrested and charged with battery and assault. Neither incident involved a student.

-- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or .

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