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Board votes 7-0 to revoke school's charter

The Athenian Academy in Dunedin will close unless supporters can win an appeal or change the district's mind.

Published March 9, 2005

LARGO - The Pinellas School Board voted Tuesday to end its sponsorship of Athenian Academy, a 5-year-old charter school that has struggled with finances, staff turnover and internal strife.

Officials of the Dunedin school can appeal to the School Board within 14 days and then to the State Board of Education. If those appeals are unsuccessful, the school's charter would expire June 30.

The board's action, if upheld, would mark the first closure of a Pinellas charter school. Athenian Academy offers a curriculum in which some subjects are taught in Greek. It is one of five charter schools in the county.

Charter schools operate primarily on public money but are governed by private boards. In Pinellas, they receive $3,916 per student in district money each year.

The board voted 7-0 to terminate the charter, but left open the possibility it could reconsider. The school has about 80 students.

"I mean sincerely that we will absolutely sit down with you and talk about the future of this academy," superintendent Clayton Wilcox told supporters of the school after the vote. "There is nothing that is off the table at this time. ... If you will meet us, we can find a way to work this out."

Wilcox even suggested the possibility of the district taking over the school and running it as a charter.

After hearing from parents, teachers and other supports of the school, some board members briefly supported the idea of renewing the charter for one year to give the troubled school more time to work through its problems.

Many supporters praised the school's curriculum. Others boasted of the school's scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which far exceed county averages. Some who spoke were parents who are not of Greek descent but found the school inviting.

Richard D. Kippings, who is black, told the board he initially was skeptical about how his daughter would do in a Greek-oriented school. But, echoing other parents, he expressed delight at hearing an 8-year-old speaking Greek and doing well in school.

"She's picked up so much and she's come so far," he told the board.

But irritation took over as the board waded into the issue further. Some board members recounted how the school's leaders had chronically ignored the district's pleas to submit financial information, then came in with new information at the 11th hour.

"This is serious, folks," School Board member Jane Gallucci said angrily. "This is taxpayer dollars, and you have to be accountable for them."

Several board members advised supporters to take their concerns to the academy's board.

According to the district, Athenian Academy has failed to provide timely audits and fix fiscal deficiencies. In December, it submitted a report showing a negative net income of $16,094.

"In other words," Wilcox said, "there was no way to pay the bills."

A February report indicated the school had only $1,379 on hand after expenses.

In addition, the school has gone through five directors in five years, and the district is sorting through reports that the academy's board has violated the state's open meetings law at some of its meetings.

The district also has complained about a confrontational and "dysfunctional" environment that has resulted in families and staff leaving the school.

If the charter is dissolved, the district would try to enroll as many of the school's students as possible into a traditional public school near their home for the 2005-06 academic year.

The choice application deadline would be waived, but the district would not increase capacities or upset waiting lists at other schools to accommodate the students.

[Last modified March 9, 2005, 00:54:20]

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