A recent Education Matters post listed the contributors to Cheryl Grymes District 1 School Board race. The post noted the extraordinary number of contributions from people and businesses outside of Jacksonville. Half of the $18,000 the candidate has raised for her campaign came from contributors outside of Jacksonville, one from outside of Florida.
Why would someone in Nashville be interested in the District 1 candidate for the school board? For that matter, why would someone in Orlando, Cooper City, Winter Park or Miami be so interested that they donate $1,000 to Cheryl Grymes’ campaign? Can you, dear reader, even name a school board member in another Florida city or know how many school board districts other cities have? If you are like me than the answer is no, of course not.
But there is a very good reason why these individuals and companies want to lay out their hard-earned cash for this campaign and it all revolves around pecuniary interest – it all revolves around money. Let me be a bit more specific – money diverted from traditional public schools to charter schools.
When you think of public schools you imagine a classroom full of students doing their school work, led by a modestly compensated teacher. The same image arises when we think of charter schools. But it isn’t the individual teacher or the single classroom full of students where money can be made.
Rather it is in the volume. For instance, currently around 10,000 Duval County students are enrolled in 32 charter schools in Duval County, diverting around $54 millions of your tax dollars from traditional public schools to charter schools. Each year a few more charter schools open in the county, expanding the stream of dollars flowing to charter schools.
In this expanding opportunity to generate tax dollars that the relevance of Cheryl Grymes’ list of contributors comes into focus. Those odd-sounding companies and strange names a part of a network of management companies, vendors, leasing companies and advocacy groups all working to expand charter schools and divert ever more millions of dollars to fund the services they provide. Here is a current list of charter school-related donations to the Grymes campaign:
Miami-based S.M.A.R.T. Management, on the books for a $1,000 donation, will open BridgePrep Academy in Duval County soon and begin that tax dollar revenue stream for themselves.
School Development HC Finance donated $1,000 to the Grymes campaign, loans money to charter school operations and is owned by the Zulueta family that owns the Academica education management organization. Academica, in turn, operates several Somerset Academy charter schools in Duval County. These two schools generated over $3 million in per pupil funding last school year. Ignacio Zulueta also donated $1,000 in his own name to the campaign.
Charter Schools USA ($1,000 contribution) operates seven charter schools in Jacksonville, taking in more than $31 million last school year. Contributing to her campaign seems to be an exercise in sensible self-interest
ALS Education Inc donated $500 to the Grymes campaign as well a number of ALS execs donating in their own name: Greg Engemen , Angela Whitford, and Randle Richardson. Their contributions totaled $2,000 – 10% of all the campaign contributions collected in 2016. ALS Education operates Lone Star and Biscayne High Schools that were given almost $4 million last school year. According to the Florida Auditor General, ALS takes 97% of all per pupil funding to teach students, maintain the physical plant, lease the building, etc.
MG3 Developer Group out of Hollywood, on the books for a $1,000 contribution, seems an odd company to donate to a district school board race. But they build charter schools in Florida and goodness knows we will see more charter schools built in Duval. It should be noted this company has a lobbyist registered at the Jacksonville city hall.
Mountain Moving Strategies first appeared to be a household moving company but that made no sense. Actually they are a consulting company out of Lake Worth providing unspecified services to charter schools. The company is owned by Eris Arza, spouse of Ralph Arza. Ralph was a South Florida legislator that, according to the Miami Herald, was criticized a decade ago for not revealing his paid consulting work with a charter school management organization (Academica) while sponsoring a handful of bills benefiting charter school management organizations. Arza was forced to resign from the Florida Legislature, according to the Herald, for allegedly leaving racist-laced messages on a colleagues answering machine.
Of course, none of this demonstrates bad conduct or the promise of future bad conduct by this school board member. However, when over half of a candidate’s campaign donations come from a single interest group – charter schools – it is worth taking notice.