9 Investigates lawmakers' connections with charter schools

ORLANDO, Fla. — Over the past five years, the number of charter schools in Central Florida has climbed. These "nontraditional" public schools receive taxpayer money -- and 9 Investigates' George Spencer found some of the same lawmakers who are writing the rules for charter schools are also benefiting from them.

Dayspring Academy Charter School in Port Richie is thriving, as evidenced by the "Another 'A' Rating" banner on its website. Last March, its business administrator, John Legg, made a special request to change admission rules in a way that would promote a more consistent flow of students from pre-school into kindergarten.

"If you deny it, and that's your prerogative, I'm not really concerned about it at the end of the day," Legg told the Pasco County School Board.

The school board did deny the request. But that didn't matter in the end as Legg, was also a powerful state representative, and the legislature soon changed laws to allow what Legg proposed.

"We, as taxpayers, need to be suspect about the motivation for pouring so many resources into charter schools," said Orange County public school parent Linda Kobert.

Across Central Florida, over the past five years, the number of charter schools has climbed by 33 percent. The school districts in Orange, Osceola and Volusia counties saw the largest jumps. But with that growth, there's criticism that state rule-makers have benefited from the rules they set.

Miami Republican Erik Fresen voted to make it easier for high-performing charters to expand -- even though his sister and brother-in-law led Academica, Inc. Academica is a charter operator with 12 Florida clients. Last fall, Wesley Chapel Republican Will Weatherford joined an effort to open a new charter school himself.

"The only people winning are the for-profit management companies that are making a profit off our children," said Kobert.

9 Investigates asked Florida Sen. David Simmons about the concerns, and he said conflict of interest changes are already in the works.

"If someone were going to directly benefit from their own vote, then they don't need to be voting on that particular issue at all," said Simmons.

John Legg, now a state senator, still works for Dayspring at a salary of $50,000. His wife, the primary administrator at the school, makes $65,000.

Legg has criticized the runaway salaries of other charter school administrators and has insisted that "real life" knowledge of the schools simply informs his legislative decisions.

Simmons agrees to a point. He said Florida's "citizen legislature" model will require a fine line between gaining real life experience and preventing conflicts of interest.

"We want people to bring their experiences and their expertise from their private lives up to the legislature," Simmons said.

Through staffers, Legg declined to be interviewed for our story. He has consistently said his only interest is quality education.

As for the other two representatives: Weatherford's charter school application was denied, so that school never opened.

An ethics investigation into Fresen's vote on that school cleared the representative of wrongdoing.