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Imagine Schools' debt ... to Imagine

This story from the Sarasota Herald Tribune sounds just about right to anyone paying attention to Imagine Schools Inc.

The Florida newspaper reports that two of the state's Imagine charter schools are struggling to pay off almost a million in debt -- to Imagine Inc.

"The debt is unlikely to lead to the closure of either school, but it does mean taxpayer money will be used by the schools to pay debts to their parent company that could include as much as $350,000 in interest," the Herald Tribune reports.

The schools, like the four Imagine schools in Indiana, pay hundreds of thousands in management fees (state tax dollars) to the for-profit Imagine Schools, a Virginia-based corporation.

Some details in the Sarasota story ring familiar: "No charter schools in Sarasota are in 'financial emergency.' But Imagine schools ran into some troubles there when the School Board rejected its application to open a school in North Port because it did not have any local oversight.

"That decision, however, was overturned by the state and the school opened in 2008.

"School Board members then raised concerns about the school's finances and the amount of money being paid to its corporate office when the company applied to open a second school in Palmer Ranch. Despite their concerns, the board approved the school and it opened in August."

The school board reference is to the Manatee County public schools. In Florida, local school districts authorize charter schools, as Ball State University, the Indianapolis mayor's office and a handful of school districts do in Indiana.

At some point, it seems like state and local officials in Indiana, Florida and elsewhere will start adding up all of the "concerns" and take a closer look at exactly who is in control and who is benefiting.

Not including the hundreds of thousands in management fees paid to Imagine Inc., Indiana taxpayers are paying more than $1 million a year in rent to the for-profit entities that lease space to the two Fort Wayne schools.

Time and again, I hear the expense dismissed as worthwhile because it's helping students. Why does that only seem to apply to charter schools, and not to traditional public schools?

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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