By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
Last year, Akron-based Summit Academy Management faced the potential loss of sponsorship for most of its schools because of unpaid bills, struggles to make payroll and questionable out-of-state ventures.
Peter DiMezza, founder and president, was making $371,524 a year, according to Summit's 2008 federal 990 tax form.
In contrast, the state school superintendent makes $194,500 a year.
DiMezza, who opened the first Summit Academy school in 1999, resigned March 17, 2009, to satisfy administrative reforms demanded by the sponsor. And Summit Academy Management Ohio's largest nonprofit charter school operator announced this spring that it is financially solvent and no longer in danger of losing its sponsorship.
The company had ''undergone a metamorphosis,'' according to its 2010 ''State of the Company'' report.
Charter schools are privately operated schools that receive state funding based on enrollment and other factors. They receive state education funding passed through the districts where their students live.
Summit Academy Management operates 26 charter schools in 13 Ohio cities serving about 2,100 students, which is about the enrollment of the Streetsboro school district.
About 95 percent of Summit's students have mild to moderate cognitive disabilities, including high-functioning autism, Asperger's disorder and attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, according to the company.
Summit schools are on schedule to receive $32.5 million in taxpayer money from the state (including $2.2 million in
federal stimulus money).
The most visible sign of the company's turnaround is the new Summit Academy Akron Middle School, which opened this fall in the former Brown Mackie College campus on Mogadore Road.
New buildings are rare for charter schools in Ohio, which are excluded from the statewide school construction program.
The renovated building and grounds are valued at $2.4 million, according to Summit Academy Management. The fresh paint and stable finances have given Summit academies new life.
Sponsorship at risk
Summit Academy Management's shakeup began in early 2009, when its sponsor, the Lucas County Educational Service Center, threatened to drop 23 Summit academies unless the management company made substantial changes.
Charter schools in Ohio must have a state-authorized sponsor to oversee the schools. The sponsor collects fees for that oversight and can suspend operations or cancel contracts if necessary.
Gerald R. Horak, a former public school teacher and superintendent who joined DiMezza at the beginning as chief academic officer, is now paid $150,000 to run the company.
''I was part of the original planners. I had met Peter a few years before,'' Horak said.
Former Vice President James Winkleman, who was paid $191,639 according to the 2008 federal 900 tax form, now is paid $125,000 to be the chief officer of therapeutic martial arts and special projects.
David Norman, chief communications officer, is now paid $100,000 instead of nearly $108,000.
Several other top administrators are no longer with the company.
The company eliminated nearly 50 positions, saving almost $2.8 million in payroll, and made other administrative cuts.
The sponsor required Summit to ''cease spending money on out-of-state ventures, activities or schools until all bills in Ohio are paid up to date.''
Summit severed ties with a Worcester, Mass., school opened in the fall of 2008 and canceled expansion plans in Florida and Arizona.
State audits of Summit academies in Columbus and Cincinnati last year found discrepancies between the schools' attendance records and the enrollment figures reported to the state.
Those issues have been resolved and the company now processes that kind of data in-house, saving about $190,000 a year, according to the ''State of the Company'' report.
Although DiMezza is no longer in the picture, Horak gives him credit for his founding vision.
''I will never quarrel with his original thought. He challenged things that I wouldn't have challenged. I'm a rule follower,'' Horak said. ''Now I'm just looking to right this ship.''
Room for growth
Charter schools often must set up shop in whatever commercial real estate they can scrounge up, usually in buildings not designed for classrooms.
That's what made Brown Mackie's donation in 2009 of its 22,000-square-foot Mogadore Road campus on about three acres so unusual.
The middle school occupies two-thirds of the building space and the other third houses Summit Academy Management offices.
The company spent about $500,000 sprucing up the building, which included installing a new roof system, a new heating and air conditioning system, new flooring and ''environmentally friendly'' lighting and painting inside and out.
The bigger space has enabled the principal, Jennifer Cutler, to add a sixth-grade class, increasing enrollment and support from the state.
The previous location on East Market Street could hold only about 40 students. Now enrollment is about 90 kids.
''I hired 10 more extra people,'' Cutler said, including full-time music and art teachers. ''Every one of my teachers, though, are degreed, certified, and highly qualified with the state. They're degreed and certified in their subject area.''
She has 17 teachers on her staff. Last year, she had one special-education teacher. This year, she has four.
She also has a full-time martial-arts instructor. Summit Academy schools incorporate martial-arts instruction in the school day to teach children discipline, character, self-respect and goal setting.
Improved test scores
The Akron middle school is rated in continuous improvement, or a ''C,'' on the latest report card, and its only passing mark (out of six indicators) was for attendance. However, test scores showed that students improved more than was expected in a year's time.
The previous two years, the school was in academic emergency, the worst rating.
A 2008 Beacon Journal analysis showed that six Summit academies (but not the Akron middle school) were one bad report card away from closing under a 2006 state law that outlined conditions for closing charter schools because of poor academic performance.
The law had already forced the closing of Summit Academy Community School for Alternative Learners of Youngstown at the end of the 2008-09 school year.
At the time, Summit Academy officials argued that the achievement tests used to determine academic performance were unfair to children with cognitive disabilities.
Summit successfully lobbied lawmakers to exempt schools that serve a majority of special-needs children from the law.
''We worked very hard with many legislators to bring that about, and the opposition would never talk about children,'' Horak said, crediting Gov. Ted Strickland with helping to pass the exemption in his two-year budget.
Horak spent most of his career in public schools including 15 years in Akron schools, followed by administrator jobs in Coventry and Norton, where he was superintendent.
''These are the kids that I suspended as a building principal and expelled as a superintendent,'' Horak said. ''I didn't have any place for them. Maybe that's why I'm here now, trying to fix it.''