Topher Sanders reported in the Florida Times-Union that 8 more charters are in the works for DuvalCounty. Included in the list is another Somerset Charter to go along with the other three already operating in Jacksonville. A Somerset principal will sit on the board of two new charters.
So who is Somerset Academy of Schools? Its 23 campuses across the state are listed as clients of Academica – a charter school company run by the sister and brother-in-law of Rep. Erik Fresen. Fresen’s sister, Magdalena is Academica’s VP. Just how involved is she in the operation of Somerset? On the Board of Director’s website, it directs that any complaints be made to “Maggie Fresen” at her Academica office.
Why this is important is that Fresen self-reported a potential conflict of interest after voting for HB7195. While he was cleared of wrongdoing, Fresen may have been incredibly vague in his disclosure. He wrote: “I am disclosing that my brother-in-law, Fernando Zulueta, operates a charter school that may be affected by HB 7195. I do not believe he would receive a special private gain or loss from this legislation as the law applies to all charter schools and school districts, but in abundance of caution, I am disclosing this conflict.”
In fact this statement was made only after a Florida taxpayer filed a Legislative complaint with the Ethic’s Committee against Fresen for “conflict of interest”
A map on Academica’s web site indicates the company operates 15 charter schools in south Florida which brings its umbrella of influence to almost 40.
A second look at Fresen’s involvement is certainly in order. Was he deliberately misleading? It’s furthermore fascinating to know that House general counsel he reported to, George Levesque, is the husband of Patricia Levesque, the powerful lobbyist who orchestrated the past session’s education reform package. Patricia Levesque is also the one in the same who was then Governor Jeb Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff and is currently the Executive Director of the Jeb Bush Foundation for Excellence in Education. The same Foundation working with Bill Gates and his Foundation to push Charter Schools, RTTT and CCS. Sounds like a family affair!
Commission staff interviewed the House’s general counsel, George Levesque, who said Fresen had approached him before HB 7195 came up for a vote in the Education Committee with concerns about a possible conflict. Levesque concluded Fresen’s discussion and vote on the bill did not pose a conflict, but Fresen filed the disclosure out of an “abundance of caution.”
Whose conflict of interest is greater? Fresen’s or Levesque’s?
Both of them are up to the eyebrows in it, but Levesque’s could prove to be the most far-reaching. He cleared Fresen of wrongdoing in a matter which involved legislation his wife was advancing. Investigative reporter Lee Fang wrote just how involved Patricia Levesque was involved in crafting legislation during the last session: Lamenting this series of defeats, Patricia Levesque, a top adviser to former Governor Jeb Bush, spoke to fellow reformers at a retreat in October 2010. Levesque noted that reform efforts had failed because the opposition had time to organize. Next year, Levesque advised, reformers should “spread” the unions thin “by playing offense” with decoy legislation. Levesque said she planned to sponsor a series of statewide reforms, like allowing taxpayer dollars to go to religious schools by overturning the so-called Blaine Amendment, “even if it doesn’t pass…to keep them busy on that front.” She also advised paycheck protection, a union busting scheme, as well as a state-provided insurance program to encourage teachers to leave the union and a transparency law to force teachers unions to show additional information to the public. Needling the labor unions with all these bills, Levesque said, allows certain charter bills to fly “under the radar.”
If Levesque’s blunt advice sounds like that of a veteran lobbyist, that’s because she is one. Levesque runs a Tallahassee-based firm called Meridian Strategies LLC, which lobbies on behalf of a number of education-technology companies. She is a leader of a coalition of government officials, academics and virtual school sector companies pushing new education laws that could benefit them.
Can’t it be assumed that George Levesque was aware of his wife’s legislative agenda? Just how involved was Levesque’s husband – the house general counsel – involved in all these manipulations clearly should be explored. At the very least, a fresh look is in order on George Levesque’s opinion on Fresen’s ethics complaint. The fact that the lead House counsel offered an opinion of legislation his powerful lobbyist spouse was advancing cannot be brushed aside.
No wonder republicans squashed ethics reform last year.
ANYONE WATCHING CHARTER SCHOOLS?
If you have read any of my recent articles regarding Charter Schools you will know I am not happy! If you haven’t, here goes! We had new legislation passed this year which grants high performance Charter schools added powers, making it even more difficult for local school boards to govern them.
The new abilities granted to these high performers include adding enrollment annually without having to request outside permission, getting 15 year contracts, expanding grade levels without sponsor approval, and opening “replicated” schools anywhere in Florida with minimal barriers. Of course, that replication is limited to one per year, but that hasn’t stopped some operators from proposing several all over the state. Keep an eye on that! I watched those hearings – it appeared to me it was a done deal from the get go!
I have previously critized Rep. Erick Fresen for sitting on 3 Education Committees and voting on legislation regarding Charter schools all the while his sister is the co-owner in a Charter School Consortium in Fresen’s district and he has refused to recuse himself from voting on Charter legislation. Dean Cannon should also be ashamed for putting one of his legislators in a position like this. Do they not look at “conflict of interest”?
In April, 2011 Fresen slipped language into a bill that would prohibit cities from imposing stricter zoning and building restrictions on charter schools than on traditional public schools. Charter schools are publicly (taxpayer) funded but privately run.
The provision is aimed in part at South Miami, which recently approved charter school regulations that could directly affect Academica, Fresen’s sisters company. The company, city Mayor Philip Stoddard said, may be looking to expand Somerset Academy in South Miami, where Fresen’s twin sons go to school. Academica has also expressed interest in building a school in Palmetto Bay. Fresen is a land-use consultant for Civica, an architectural firm that has designed several Academica schools.
Now we have another chapter in the ongoing saga. In an effort to save money on a hurting budget, legislators cut funding for Adult Education. This was supposed to save the state a considerable amount of money but once again we find our legislators in their typical “cronyism”. The Florida Department of Education was able to scrape together $20 million to sponsor political allies who want to start charter schools. Some of even the most “die hard republicans” are beginning to take a second look at the actions of our legislators. The hypocrisy is beginning to be much too much to deal with. There are more than enough (one is too many) republican legislators who already have financial interests in charter schools and having the “gall” to vote on legislation that clearly benefits them needs a much closer look. It appears there is a bit too much playing with the taxpayer’s hard earned money.
The legislators included in this mess are: Rep. John Legg (Dayspring Academy in Pasco Cnty), Rep. Erik Fresen (several Academica Schools in Miami-Dade), Rep. Seth McKeel (South McKeel Elementary Academy, Polk Cnty) and Sen. Anitere Flores (Doral Academy in Miami-Dade). These schools are either run by or connected to these legislators. When questioned previously about this, Rep. Fresen responded, “I was voting for all Charter Schools”. Really? Where are your ethics? Did I hear somewhere there is a rumor Fresen is to be House Speaker in a few years?
The $20 million that’s earmarked for a few well-connected charter operators could easily have kept a good portion of the Adult Ed program afloat. How about not spending the $20K at all? I would think it would be part of Rep. Cannon and Sen. Haridopolus’ jobs to oversee things like this and make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen.
Time to clean out the Florida House and Senate – they are as rooted in place as those in Washington.
ADDING INSULT TO INJURY –
It has come to our attention there are even more high powered lobbing groups forming in FL to push for the expansion of Charter schools with absolutely no mention of oversight. These groups are even “bragging” they have an inside track with both current and former lawmakers.
The Florida Charter Alliance has received a $900K grant from the Walton Family Foundation – yep, the Wal-Mart folks! The main purpose of this group is to bring the public to their way of thinking and then once again they will do as they want – not the wishes of taxpayers! They are also going to try and convenience you it is all about opening more and more Charter schools. Now we are back to the Charter School Consortium’s and it being a very lucrative business on the taxpayer’s dime (that is about all a dollar is worth today).