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Academy has until end of school year to satisfy district

The school district will call for Language Academy to be closed at the academic year's end if the school fails to meet four conditions by the end of the school year.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published February 26, 2004

A week was not enough time for the financially shaky Language Academy Charter School to prove it is on its way to stability.

Pasco County school district officials next week will recommend the School Board close the 140-student Language Academy at the end of the academic year if the school doesn't meet four conditions illustrating fiscal viability, officials said.

"That's certainly not what we want to do, but they're not meeting the obligations they made with the district or the obligations they made with their students," Pasco County assistant superintendent Sandy Ramos said Wednesday evening.

As a charter school, the Language Academy is publicly funded but privately run. Still, state law requires local school districts provide some oversight of charter institutions.

For the school to stay alive, the district is requiring that it:

- Hire a consultant to help train staff in proper financial management and other governance issues.

- Renegotiate its contract with the district in line with an agreement the two agencies made last fall.

- Submit a plan by April 12 showing specifically how it plans to achieve financial stability in the 2004-05 school year.

- Address numerous unresolved staffing, financial and instructional issues already cited in an audit submitted to the School Board two weeks ago.

Language Academy founder, director and board president the Rev. Gary Carson could not be reached late Wednesday to discuss the district's recommendation. The school's Board of Trustees was planning a meeting at 7 p.m. today to discuss the issue, said Max Ramos, the district's liaison to charter schools.

In the past, Carson has conceded the school has dropped the ball in some areas. But he also has maintained that many of the Language Academy's supposed shortcomings are more record-keeping matters that the school and district don't see eye to eye on.

The 2-year-old New Port Richey school serves Grades 4 to 8 and is housed on U.S. 19 in Westminster Presbyterian Church, where Carson pastors.

A 45-page audit report by district officials found the school is regularly late paying its bills and struggles to keep a positive bank balance. At least six of 36 employees and board members had not been fingerprinted for criminal background checks during the December review, and 10 of 15 teachers were teaching out of their field. Additionally, the school had not submitted a working budget approved by its governing board.

Max Ramos (who is married to Sandy Ramos) said the district staff's recommendation to delay shutting down the school until the end of the school year does not exclude the possibility of immediate closure. If the Language Academy is determined to be in violation of federal special education laws or other legal obligations, the district could be compelled to close the school.

But Ramos said he was encouraged by signs that Language Academy leaders were already looking for a consultant to help make improvements.

"We need more than good intentions," Ramos said. "We're looking for results at this point."

Deerwood Academy, another charter school serving Pasco County middle schoolers, closed last October amid its own financial difficulties. Deerwood's problems stemmed from the disappearance of about $100,000 that investigators have linked to the activities of at least one former employee.

- Rebecca Catalanello covers education in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. Her e-mail address is rcatalanello@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 26, 2004, 08:29:06]


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