(This was first posted at B-Town Errant, Bloomington, Indiana)
When Lisa Rab outed Joe Biden’s brother, Frank, as a major force behind a for-profit education management organization (EMO) dead set on building 100 new charter schools across Florida,* it came as no surprise to anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to the corporate school reform movement, the Obama/Biden/Duncan regime, or Florida.
What was surprising was that Francis W. Biden told Rab that he and Mavericks in Education Florida, LLC were on “a mission from God.” But the truth behind this “mission from God” is the devil in the details.
Although in press releases Biden is named as president and director of development, he is listed on the Florida Legislature website as a “lobbyist” for the for-profit school outfit. Last month, tracking down Biden’s home address on this website, someone sent him a package of white powder disguised as Anthrax that sent him and his girlfriend to the hospital and the FBI to his house.
Biden, a former director of congressional and legislative affairs under Bill Clinton, has become Mavericks’ main cheerleader, selling his love for poor children and reciting his brother’s name at local school board meetings. But since Frank’s name does not appear on any company document, any promises he makes concerning Mavericks will not be legally binding, and many are starting to see through his corporate school reform theatrics.
The Palm Beach School Board requested that Mavericks’ plea for three more charter schools be taken off their November 22 meeting agenda, after Rab’s story broke. Broward County and the Hernando School District both rejected the group’s applications due to everything from inadequate special needs curriculum to financial management questions, but after a stink, Florida’s Charter School Appeal Commission, in a 7-1 vote, overturned Hernando’s decision.
This month, going against staff recommendations, the Orange County School Board accepted Mavericks’ application for a charter school in their backyard. Critics had complained that Mavericks did not meet the county’s standards, and Orange County’s charter school overseer, Christopher Bernier, noted that “Mavericks locations around Florida routinely fail to test enough students to earn state ratings.”
Bernier is right. According to state records, in 2010 only 17 students graduated out of 119 at Mavericks’ Pinellas County school. Forty-two dropped out altogether. For the 2009/2010 school year, zero percent of the students at Mavericks’ North Dade County school were meeting high reading standards. Disturbingly, data for the 2010/2011 school year is unavailable for Mavericks’ schools in Dade, Broward, Osceola and Pinellas counties because there were not enough students taking the FCAT, the state’s student assessment test.
Moreover, two whistle-blowing teachers have filed lawsuits against Mavericks High of South Miami-Dade for not “offering Florida high school diplomas.”
A TIP OF THE WHITE HAT TO YOU
Not testing students to earn state ratings is nothing new to Mark Thimmig, one of the original founders of Mavericks in 2007. In 2005, after the former AutoNation official joined the notorious for-profit charter school operator White Hat Ventures, Thimmig took heat from the Ohio Department of Education for not adequately reporting student test scores in four of its Life Skills high schools. Also, the Akron Beacon Journal discovered that when Ohio switched testing from the 9th to the 10th grade, White Hat enrolled almost half of its Life Skills schools’ student body into the 9th grade in order to avoid testing these students.
Despite constant criticism, White Hat, based in Akron, Ohio, and owned by affluent industrialist David Brennan, still operates 53 schools in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Arizona, Michigan, and Florida. Brennan was instrumental in lobbying for the Cleveland Voucher Program and started White Hat in 1998.
Under Thimmig’s helm, White Hat expanded into seven states, initiated the government-funded NCLB Tutors program, and adventured into the online-home schooling market with its IQ Digital video division. Shortly after Thimmig left White Hat, the governing boards of 10 charter schools sued the for-profit company for ignoring input from the board, failing to disclose financials, and seeking only profit to the detriment of the schools’ students.
But, if anyone not affected by White Hat or Mavericks remembers Thimmig, it is for his outrageous suggestion that White Hat be given the right to use the Astrodome to educate students who were displaced by Katrina.
For Mavericks, Thimmig has preyed upon at-risk students or those who have already dropped out. Utilizing another White Hat trick to slash labor and pump online learning, Thimmig set up Mavericks’ classes to run in three shifts of four hours each in “blending learning” environments, with students spending the majority of their time glaring at computer screens.
The Mavericks Management System online program offers core curriculum and cyber athletics and clubs. If that were not enough, students are rewarded playtime in the “game room featuring John Madden football on an Xbox and Tiger Woods golf on a Wii.” Thimmig, in 2008, even established Cyber Gaming Unlimited and the International High School Cyber Athletic Association as limited liability companies, but they both folded this year.
Thimmig left Mavericks in late 2009 and attempted to launch Mindstream, LLC, a K-20 consulting firm with its own charter school, but the company went nowhere.
TEAM PLAYERS IN THE REAL ESTATE RODEO
After getting approval from each targeted district, Mavericks establishes a nonprofit governance board called the New Alternative Education High School which funnels money to the for-profit Mavericks in Education Florida. Building leases are a big part of the equation.**
According to a June 2010 independent audit by Keefe, McCullough & Co, the New Alternative Education High School, South Miami has agreed to pay Mavericks $30,000 a month to rent the building where the board’s school operates (16). The same lease agreements with the same payments are also set in stone at the Mavericks North Miami charter school (17) and the one in Osceola (16-17).
Mavericks members are or have recently been involved in many real estate and investment companies, even though it is unknown if any of these companies are invested in Mavericks’ schools.
Lauren Hollander, Mavericks’ CEO, operates Hollander Real Estate with her husband Steve, who is Mavericks’ chief operating officer. The Hollanders were investors in Frenchman’s Real Estate, which, according to Florida Department of State records, filed as a limited liability company in August 2009 and dissolved in August 2011.
In September 2009, Lauren Hollander filed for a limited liability company called Burnfoot Investments with attorney Charles Barnett, who is Mavericks’ board liaison and served on its management board from 2008 to 2009. The financial company vanished in September 2011.
Lauren Hollander’s maiden name is Rodberg, and it appears she is either a sister or a cousin to Mark Rodberg. Rodberg, a restaurant chain-construction company owner, has been with Mavericks since at least September 2007, when he helped the group (then also working under the name Next Generation in Education, LLC) form D. Wade’s Schools.
Mark Thimmig currently heads Estate Building Services, LLC, which he opened with the state on November 27, 2006, just before Mavericks’ filing on January 8, 2007. This business offers building construction, maintenance, janitorial, and site cleanup services to private and public schools, business offices, and condominiums.
Since the 990s and audits for the nonprofits contracting with Mavericks are not specific as to where all the maintenance, land, and building expenses go, it is impossible to say if any of these companies are profiting or have profited from projects at Mavericks’ schools.
Whoever the companies are working with Mavericks’ nonprofit boards, they have landed some good gigs. Last year, New Alternative Education High School, South Miami alone paid $675,810 for “plant operations and maintenance” (10).
HOOP SCOOTIN’ BOOGIE: A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR FRANK BIDEN
Lining the hallways of Mavericks’ offices in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, are the portraits of Mother Theresa, Walt Disney, Cesar Chavez, and Waiting for Superman-promoter Oprah Winfrey. But the charter school management company has removed all pictures of NBA Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade. And as it is with almost everything surrounding Mavericks, you have to do serious homework to piece together why.
In 2007, Mavericks partnered with Wade to be a spokesperson for their charter schools, since he was, Thimmig and Mark Rodberg suggested, a great role model for kids on the verge of dropping out of high school. One of Mavericks’ schools even bore Wade’s name.
But after accusations of sex parties and pot-smoking at Dwyane Wade’s pad and rumors he gave his estranged wife a STD broke in the media in February 2009, Mark Thimmig released a statement that Mavericks had decided to “remove all references going forward to the name D.Wade, Dwyane Wade, D.Wade’s Schools, along with Mr. Wade’s likeness and image in all matters relating to Mavericks in Education Florida, LLC and Mavericks High Schools.”
In a Broward Palm Peach New Times story, Thimmig downplayed the basketball hero’s alleged behavior, saying that Wade had merely not lived up to his duties in his contract with the schools.
But the charter school namesake was just a small part of a bigger plan Mavericks had had for Wade, which Thimmig also downplayed. Wade’s duties also included sponsoring D. Wade’s Place, a sports-themed restaurant chain opened by Rodberg, co-owner of the 300 restaurant chain Bucky Bar-B-Que and the Mavericks person responsible for recruiting Frank Biden.
Conveniently, it turns out that the dope-smoking/sex partying accusations against Wade came from Mark Rodberg’s business partner, Richard Von Houtman, who also had invested in the D. Wade’s Place restaurants and Mavericks High D. Wade’s Schools.
Von Houtman claims to be the son of the heiress to the Blue Bonnet margarine company, but New Times’ Gus Garcia-Roberts also found that Von Houtman has been arrested for assaulting police and taken to court over accusations of sexual sadism and domestic violence. In fact, Von Houtman had his Boca Raton mansion seized by U.S. Customs because it was purchased with money he made as “a former crony of a slain Dutch hashish kingpin.”
Four lawsuits were filed against Wade for $115 million, accusing the NBA star of breaching his contract with D. Wade’s Place and seeking a sports memorabilia monopoly which interfered with Rodberg’s restaurant business, since it sold the sports gear. One lawsuit was filed on behalf of Mavericks, claiming Wade reneged on his obligations with the charter school operator. Several of the lawsuits listed Mark Rodberg and Linda Hollander as plaintiffs.
According to Rodberg, he was suing Wade because, among other things, the NBA star wanted a new contract giving him 30 percent share of the D. Wade’s Place business and his father a job.
Wade has a different story concerning the attempted restaurant chain, which was drawing horrible food reviews. He claims that the investors had no clue how to run the business and that Rodberg and Von Houtman were working to cut him out of his profits from the get-go.
Just months after one restaurant opened in Fort Lauderdale, Von Houtman sold his shares in the company and the other owners went behind Wade’s back to try to cut a deal with KFC’s John Y. Brown. After both the Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton restaurants folded, Wade stopped the restaurants from using his name before they opened a new branch in Aventura.
Eventually, the several lawsuits were consolidated, and eager to get the charter school/restaurant crew out of his life, Dade settled in court with Rodberg and Hollander in 2010 for an undisclosed amount believed to have been far less than what Rodberg and Hollander wanted.
Wade’s estranged wife dropped her STD claims after he filed a lawsuit for libel.
Wade also has a pending $100 million defamation suit against Von Houtman, who he charges as concocting a smear campaign against him through the local press. In 2010, Von Houtman was charged with a felony for writing phony checks to the lawyers representing him in that case.
MAVERICKS’ OTHER FRANK
Frank Attkisson is another fine example of the revolving door between government and charter schools in Florida. A lobbyist for Mavericks and an Osceola County District 4 Commissioner, Attkisson was, until 2008, a member of several education committees in the Florida House of Representatives, where he helped draft several of Jeb Bush’s corporate school reform bills in favor of charter schools and FCAT.
As the mayor of Kissimmee from 1996 to 2000, Attkisson constructed central Florida’s first municipal charter school and “privately consulted with developers and created school assessment districts allowing schools to be built in the middle of subdivisions,” a maneuver which later helped open the city to Thimmig’s Mavericks High of Osceola County, Dennis Bakke’s Imagine Schools and several other charters.
It was state representative Attkisson who first introduced in 2001 a bill to allow developers of housing projects to redirect impact fees from the public schools into charter schools in their own housing developments. As Osceola school board member Tom Greer noticed at the time, since charter schools are reimbursed by the state, whatever impact fee credits that are not used by the developers can then be resold to other developers, opening up the possibility of “double-dipping.”
While sitting on the House Education Innovation Committee, Attkisson was also a member of the Hillsborough Charter Foundation, the puppet nonprofit set up by Jeb Bush’s friend Jonathan Hage, owner of Charter Schools USA. As St. Petersburg Times reporter Kent Fischer noted: “The foundation’s board of directors consisted of Billy Buzzett, a one-time Charter Schools USA lobbyist; John Murphy of Arvida, the developer with three Charter Schools USA projects; and Rep. Frank Attkisson, who served with Hage on two state charter school committees.”
Unbelievably, in December 2003 the Orlando Sentinel reported that while Attkisson was a state representative he was also employed as a consultant to Charter Schools USA, where he earned $80,000 until he was “downsized out of a job.”
Attkisson served as executive director of Jeb Bush’s charter school authorizing board, the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission, the creation of which he endorsed while a representative. For his work to approve charters denied by local school boards, Attkisson was paid $140,000 yearly. After Florida’s First District Court of Appeals declared the commission unconstitutional in late 2008 and Jeb ended up picking former advisor and Meridian Strategies LLC lobbyist Patricia Levesque to run his Foundation for Florida’s Future and Foundation for Excellence in Education, a jilted Attkisson was able to find a happy home with Mavericks in Education Florida.
Teachers in the Mavericks High in Kissimmee are not as lucky. According to accountability reports filed with the state for 2010, Mavericks High in Kissimmee had only 11 instructors to teach 362 students. Only nine of these instructors are full time, and only 7 hold professional certification.
BIG BROTHER TO THE RESCUE
The first public record of Biden working for Mavericks is a press release dated June 5, 2011, and just days ago he told the New Times he is, indeed, the president of Mavericks and not just a lobbyist, and his name will appear in company documents as soon as litigation with Mark Thimmig is finalized. This must be good news for Frank, since a month after he first surfaced in the Mavericks press release, the Obama/Biden/Duncan administration awarded $21,420,201 to Florida to expand charter schools in the state. I’m sure Frank and the Mavericks will be lining up for their shake of the government handouts, since they are already receiving federal grants.
Federal money for Mavericks High of South Miami Dade last year was $250,000 (10), with another $250,000 going to Mavericks High of North Miami Dade (11), and yet another $250,000 for Mavericks Osceola (11).
With millions of dollars in state money going to Mavericks’ nonprofits, the nonprofits are still borrowing money from the for-profit company. According to the 2010 audit, the New Alternative Education High, Osceola had $295,180 in outstanding debt (6). Page six of this document directs the reader to note 6 on page 17, which describes a note payment to Mavericks in Education Florida, LLC, with a 7% interest rate totaling $295, 180” and due on March 15, 2011. The same applies to Mavericks High of North Miami Dade, which has a note payable to Mavericks for $603, 154 (17).
The Associated Press’ Julie Pace tells us that Bro Joe Biden has “already been making stops in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida this fall, speaking at events focused on education, public safety and small businesses and raising campaign cash.” I think Frank has given us a hint into what “education” means for the corporate school reformers and the Obama/Biden/Duncan regime. Floridians have some serious questions for the vice-president concerning his brother and Obama when he arrives.
* Biden may seem a bit over-enthusiastic here, but Steve Hollander, chief operating officer for Mavericks, claims the company wants to open 10 to 15 new schools in Florida each year, so it might reach the 100 goal sooner than later.
** Then there’s Mavericks’ management fees. South and North Miami pay Mavericks $35,000 a month for “assisting the school in the performance of various administrative, operating, and financial duties” (16/17). Alternative Education High School, Osceola only hands the for-profit operation $25,000 a month for the same services (16-17). In 2010, according to 990s available on guidestar.com, the New Alternative Education High of Miami-Dade County, Inc. paid $843,250 in management fees to Mavericks (8), the New Alternative Education High of Pinellas County, Inc. paid $286,151, and the New Alternative Education High of Osceola County, Inc. handed over $308, 956 to Mavericks for supervision.
Although audits for all of Mavericks charter schools are not available online, one can guess that the same procedures are in operation. Florida officials seem to have no problems with any of these tactics. David W. Martin, Florida’s Auditor General (or at least his office) is very well aware of the sweet arrangements for Mavericks, for the South Miami audit appears on his website.