Imagine Schools Squeeze Dollars Out of Public Funds

The Imagine Academy of Academic Success school has been entangled in a complex series of real estate deals since it opened. By the time students were on their first summer break, their brown brick building at 1409 East Linton Avenue in St. Louis had been sold three times, the final price nearly 10 times higher than the first. In the process, the company running the school cashed in, writes Elisa Crouch at the St. Louis Post-Distpatch.

Imagine Schools Inc. is the nation's largest charter school operator and it runs six charter schools in St. Louis. Together, their performance on state standardized exams is worse than any school district in Missouri.

So how can these schools are generating millions of dollars for Imagine?

Answer: through real estate arrangements supported with public education money.

The deals are part of a strategy that has fueled Imagine's national expansion and they sell their buildings to another company that leases them back to Imagine, with the schools themselves shouldering the rent with public funds.

"A new public school can be built on the bond credit of the city. That's not available to charters," said Sharp, who is also the president of Imagine's real estate arm. "To build a school or open a school or refurbish a building like we've done in St. Louis, that's difficult."

A Post-Dispatch investigation also shows that the schools have exceeded occupancy limits and were cited for building code violations, including for an inoperable fire alarm, days before opening in 2007 and cut budgets for materials to an almost unmanageable amount.

Teachers say that they have limited supplies and often get no more than two reams of paper a month. Their average salaries in 2010 were between $35,000 and $37,000 — compared with almost $50,000 in the St. Louis Public Schools.

Teacher turnover is a problem.

At Academic Success, just 15 of 41 teachers in 2009-10 returned for the 2010-11 school year, according to a report from Missouri Baptist University, sponsor of the Imagine schools.

Angela Howard, a former principal at the school for four years, said she could no longer work for Imagine. The budgetary stresses, among other things, were too much.

Test results show that in 2011, just 5.4 percent of the school's students passed the communication arts section of the state test, and 8.5 percent passed the math portion.

"It was the frustration of the whole setup," Howard said. "To me, the red flag should be your test scores and how they're worse than every other school in the state of Missouri. If that is not a red flag I don't know what is."

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