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    Florida charter school says child care provider failed to keep students safe

    By Jeffrey S. Solochek,

    27 days ago
    Plato Academy Clearwater, shown here, and eight other Plato schools in the Tampa Bay area are entangled in a years-long legal feud with management company Superior Schools. [ Times (2014) ]

    One of the Tampa Bay area’s largest charter school systems and one of its key service providers have landed in court over the question of who will offer early learning and extended day programs at the group’s nine campuses.

    Plato Academy has accused Superior Schools, which has run the programs for years, of violating state school safety rules and is trying to push the company out. Superior is pushing back.

    It’s not their first time at each other’s throats.

    Their latest feud comes less than a year after the sides reached an agreement regarding the child care offerings, following a five-year legal battle.

    Plato has nine campuses in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, serving close to 4,000 students. Superior, which managed all Plato’s operations until the charter ended that arrangement in 2019, runs prekindergarten and after-hours activities in the schools, three of which it owns and leases to Plato.

    Now Plato wants to terminate that aspect of Superior’s involvement, too. The actions have put parents on edge and prompted school districts to keep a close eye on the charters.

    In a March 20 letter, Plato accused Superior of failing to follow state law regarding school safety. It listed examples including Superior employees granting campus access to individuals without verifying their identities, and leaving access and security gates propped open.

    Plato warned that it could seek to end the agreement over such violations. Superior rejected the accusations in an April 5 response. Two weeks later — a day after the sides reached impasse at a mediation session — Plato delivered its termination notice.

    “Superior must fully vacate Plato’s campuses thereafter prior to close of business on June 7, 2024,” lawyer Shawn Arnold wrote to Superior CEO Jenny Tsantilas. The letter added that Plato will “immediately trespass Superior’s employees and agents from Plato’s campuses and/or remove Superior’s personal property from Plato’s campuses” if Superior doesn’t cease operations on the campuses by that date.

    As word of the dispute circulated, Superior sent a letter to families to reassure them that its programs were not going anywhere despite the “purported safety concerns.” The group stated it had recent licensing inspections with “100% compliance,” and added that it has been accountable to early learning coalition requirements in all three counties.

    “While Plato’s attempt to terminate the agreement is noted, the mere assertion of termination does not automatically render a valid contract null and void,” the group told parents. “This matter will need to be resolved through legal proceedings in a court of law.”

    On May 14, Superior’s lawyers filed three lawsuits against Plato in Pinellas County court. They alleged the charter company had violated its exclusive provider agreement and its leases on its Clearwater and Pinellas Park properties.

    Over several pages, Superior’s lawyers detailed the companies’ contentious history, dating back to the split that emerged after Superior founder Steve Christopoulos died in 2018 and his ex-wife, Tsantilas, took control.

    Superior asserted that it has all the licenses and agreements to provide child care at the Plato campuses, and contended that Plato is prevented from attempting to operate similar programs while Superior has those rights in place through June 2027.

    It argued that Plato is acting in bad faith.

    “It is believed that Plato has attempted to terminate the Exclusive Provider Agreement for commercial reasons,” the lawyers wrote in one of its complaints to the court. “Superior suspects that Plato or its leadership are attempting to monetize the Childcare Programs by forming their own company or organization to provide the Childcare Programs or by entering into a more lucrative agreement with another company to do so. The safety allegations are little more than a ruse given the long history and misguided efforts of Plato’s current leadership trying to terminate Superior’s contractual rights.”

    Plato has announced plans to offer summer school at all but two of its campuses.

    Lawyers for Plato said the sole issue to them is safety. They pointed to reports as recent as May 15 to indicate that inspectors found safety violations in the child care programs that Superior has provided.

    “Their claim of ‘nearly 100% compliance’ is not valid,” Arnold wrote.

    On social media, parents have debated whether to remove their children from Plato and raised questions about whether services will be available over the summer and beyond as the two sides fight.

    No hearings for the lawsuits have been scheduled. Tsantilas and Superior’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment. Arnold said Plato officials wanted to let the written documents speak for themselves.

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