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Embattled CareerSource Pinellas seeks to open charter school

The Pinellas County workforce agency under investigation for its reporting of job placement figures has filed an application to open a charter school next year in St. Petersburg.

CareerSource Pinellas wants to start a school that would train at-risk teenagers for jobs in trades. It would hope to save money by teaching basic coursework through a for-profit distance learning program. It would be modeled after an existing CareerSource program called Youth Build Program.

The Pinellas County school district’s office of charter schools and home education received the 413-page application on Feb. 1, the district’s due date for applications that wish to open schools in August 2019. CareerSource Pinellas president and CEO Edward Peachey, who is listed as the application’s contact person, was suspended from his duties overseeing the Pinellas jobs center that same day amid the ongoing investigation.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: CareerSource chief Edward Peachey suspended from Hillsborough post

Pinellas School Board Chairwoman Rene Flowers, who knew Peachey from when he opened a jobs center branch at Pinellas Technical College on 34th Street S, said a key quality a charter school must have is stability.

"My suggestion (would) be that nothing move forward until the investigation is complete, as far as he’s concerned," she said. "I don’t want Pinellas County Schools to be mixed up in anything else like we were before."

Rick Wolfe, the district’s charter school director, said he has not had a chance to review the charter school application. Peachey’s application was one of six submitted by the Feb. 1 deadline, and all applications must go before the School Board for approval within 90 days.

Wolfe said there is no state law that prohibits a person or agency from submitting a charter school application while under investigation.

"I think that’s certainly going to be a major question as far as the school operations and the depth and the level of (Peachey’s) involvement," he said. "The new statutes have allowed us to consider past school operations and business operations. It gives us a little bit more authority to look at past operations of board members and people involved with the school."

According to the application, the prospective Science Center Charter School of Pinellas hopes to serve 50 low-income high school students between the ages of 14 and 21. Courses would be taught at the Science Center of Pinellas, located at 7701 22nd Ave N in St. Petersburg — the Tyrone area location for CareerSource Pinellas.

The school plans to pay $750 per student for an online curriculum by Penn Foster, the for-profit distance learning program based out of Scranton, Pa., for core classes. It would rely on curriculum from the National Center for Construction and Research for hands-on construction trades training. Those lessons include basic safety, construction math and use of hand and power tools, as well as a course on Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

A student’s week would be divided between academic training, occupational skills training and community service, career development and leadership training. Electives would range from academic courses such as American literature and psychology to career studies such as auto repair and veterinary assistant training.

The school expects to earn nearly $340,000 in state funding its first year — about $6,800 per student. It plans to hire two full-time academic teachers to work with Penn Foster, paid $40,000 each, one full-time construction trades teacher paid $45,000, one instructional teacher’s aide, one administrative aid and a principal for a salary of $55,000.

"Firstly, SCCSP will be able to cover a full range of curriculum while utilizing minimal teaching staff," the application said. "If the school was going to teach Florida’s standard curriculum, it would need to hire a teacher per subject."

It added: "Using Penn Foster cuts these costs significantly and allows for funding to be spent elsewhere."

The application states that it plans to use its own CareerSource Pinellas website and job fairs to fill teaching positions. It designates the president and CEO of CareerSource Pinellas as the hiring authority for the school.

The application named seven to the school’s nonprofit board, which would hold the charter contract with the district: Aundre Green, Kristin Dailey, Lenne Nicklaus, Richard Peck, Mike Mikurak, John Kearney and Shri Goyal.

Green lost his position as chairman of CareerSource Pinellas on Tuesday after the Pinellas County Commission vote to unanimously remove him, citing concerns that he has not taken his oversight responsibility seriously enough.

Richard Peck, chairman of the board for Career Source Tampa Bay, the Hillsborough agency Peachey also leads until that board also suspended him last week, told staffers there that the problems facing the career center were a "clerical error." Kearney also serves on the Tampa Bay board.

Nicklaus and Mikurak are current CareerSource Pinellas board members. All members except Dailey currently sit on the Science Center board.

Dailey, a retired CareerSource Pinellas employee, signed a form included in the application packet acknowledging the responsibility she would have as a board member, although the signature is not dated. Dailey said she could not recall when she signed the form and said she no longer wanted to be affiliated with the application.

"I had said, ‘Oh yeah, sure, that sounds interesting,’" she told the Times, "but I didn’t think it would be put in given the circumstances."

She added, "I was shocked it was put in."

The school plans to market through local community events, targeted outreach to low-income neighborhoods in St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Clearwater, and advertisement on radio shows and social media. All students who are interested in enrolling must complete a two-week course selection process called "mental toughness."

The application includes three letters of support written by Debra Johnson, executive director of the Pinellas County Housing Authority; Deborah Passerini, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries — Suncoast; and Celeste Fernandez, community development administrator for the Department of Children and Families’ SunCoast region.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: U.S. Labor Department opens review of CareerSource agencies

Peachey did not return a call seeking comment.

In the past two weeks, state and federal authorities have announced a series of investigations of CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay in Hillsborough into questions about whether the agencies have been inflating their job-placement numbers. Both agencies receive millions in public dollars each year to help people find work and have routinely claimed to lead similar agencies around the state in their placements.

Elected officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have criticized Peachey for making major decisions before getting approval from his CareerSource boards.

At a CareerSource Pinellas executive committee meeting on Dec. 6, Pinellas County Commission chair Ken Welch questioned how the school would operate and who would be targeted to attend. Peachey said he planned to target dropouts and other at-risk students.

Welch, also the vice chair of the CareerSource board, told the committee that he didn’t know the agency was seeking to open a charter school.

"I wasn’t aware that we were moving down this path," Welch said, according to an audio recording of the meeting.

Times staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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