Sunrise charter school had warning signs before teachers were fired, resigned

School board member says charter schools 'free-for-all'

SUNRISE, Fla. – With roughly 270 students, the new Paramount Charter School in Sunrise has already received $740,000 in taxpayer-funded money and is slated to get about $3 million during the school year.

Despite the infusion of public cash, Paramount -- an elementary-level school that, like all charters, is privately owned but publicly funded -- is riddled with problems. According to a school board member, it's already had three principals, lost nearly all of its teachers after the first month due to firings and resignations and has some parents alleging their children aren't learning there.

The president of the company that owns the school, Jimika Williams Mason, drove away from a Local 10 News camera in her vehicle. It was discovered the listed vice president of the company, Ashley Challenger, is a 22-year-old Nova Southeastern University student who said she was given a spot on the school's board of directors through the college and had no idea she had even been listed as a corporate vice president of the Advancement of Education in Scholars Corporation.

She said she had met once with Mason but had no idea what was happening at the school and had yet to attend a board meeting.

More findings about the troubled charter school include:

  • Mason, the president, lists no experience in the education field in the application, instead noting that she spent six years in management at a Miramar company that specializes in unsecured home improvement loans.
  • Former NFL player and reality TV star Hank Baskett is listed in the application as a "non-voting board member" who will "aid in the Sports and Fitness program." But Baskett's agent, Jim Ivler, said Baskett is not affiliated with the school. "They reached out to us more than five years ago interested in establishing a relationship with Hank," Ivler wrote Local 10. "It never went anywhere and we haven't heard from them in years."
  • The corporate office goes to a building in Boca Raton's Mizner Park, but a manager there told Local 10 the company doesn't actually rent physical office space, but rather has a "virtual office" where it can receive mail and phone messages.
  • After promising at least two teachers who spoke to Local 10 on condition of anonymity a salary of $36,000 and full benefits, the school after the first month instructed them that if they wanted to keep their jobs they would have to take a $6,000 pay cut and forego benefits. Both teachers were among those who resigned, while numerous teachers were fired. "I don't understand how you can give someone a school just based on paper," said one teacher. "Not only the school, how can you give them the children," said the other.

Broward County school board member Laurie Rich Levinson voiced frustration about the situation at the school, saying the board has received complaints and been to the school, which she said has had three principals already this year. But she said that because of a lack of regulation coming from Tallahassee, there is little the board can do about the problems. She said without a record of performance failures, which can take two years to establish, the school board's hands are tied unless there is a health or safety risk.

"Everything is a free-for-all basically," Levinson said. "And the sad part is we're going to find this generation of kids, many of them, who are not educated properly in these schools."

Levinson noted that four charter schools have shut down over the past two years, including schools exposed by Local 10 News last year, like the disaster that was Ivy Academy.

The shutdowns have disrupted the educational process of hundreds of students and cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"What we need to do is get more stringent regulation where charter schools are treated like traditional public schools," Levinson said.

When Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman paid a visit to the school, an administrator named Maia Williams, whom sources say is Mason's sister, stormed out of the school and grabbed the camera.

"You do not have permission, sir," she said as she jerked the camera.

After being told to let go of the camera, Williams refused before Norman removed her hand.

"We're a new school and we have supportive parents and we're here for the community," she said when the situation calmed down.

The statement didn't arrive prior to deadline for this story. Williams called the following day and refused to answer most questions but said the teachers were fired because there was a bullying problem in the school and that many of them were tied to a previous principal. She also said the school is working to staff the school with full-time certified teachers.

That didn't convince parent Leonie Lewis, who pulled her 7-year-old daughter from the school after she complained that her teacher was gone and that all she did was draw pictures.

"It doesn't make sense for them not to have an office, for them to fire their teachers and hire substitutes, which are cheaper," she said. "It sounds like it's a money issue, which is not right, because if you are going to be in education, you need to be teaching these children, not taking the state's money and replacing the teachers with substitutes."

Follow Bob Norman on Twitter @NormanOn10

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