John Higgins

On a warm May evening at the Gus Johnson Community Center in West Akron, Ernie Tarle raised the curtain on his third act: This time, he wants to be the founder of a charter school.


Act I ended when voters recalled him from Akron City Council in 1998, issuing their judgment about three weeks before a jury acquitted Tarle of two felony bribery charges.


The curtain dropped on Act II when a real estate venture in Florida went bust, leading to about $4.5 million in debts that were settled in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy approved in January


But on this night, Tarle wasn’t running for office or selling real estate. He was pitching his prospective new school — the Akron Academy of Excellence — to about 20 parents.


Charters are publicly funded, privately operated schools that must have a state-approved sponsor to operate.


He explained that while the Academy of Excellence won’t be a religious school, he wants the parents to know where he stands.


“The truth is, for something like this to come together, so many stars had to align there is almost no denying the presence of God,” Tarle said. “I’m not in the business of denying that presence. I’m in the true believer business. In fact, the only reason I’m here today is because I know that the best way to serve him is to serve you.”


Tarle has plenty of enthusiasm, the advice of consultants associated with successful charters and a principal for his school who has experience teaching in high-performing urban charter schools. What he doesn’t have is a lot of startup money.


“Right now we’re using my life savings and we’re hoping that someone comes to the rescue,” he said.


When he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the summer of 2011, Tarle reported having $100 in cash on hand, $150 in clothing and $1,000 in miscellaneous household goods.


“So you can imagine, it’s pretty meager,” Tarle said.


No guarantees


The Toledo-based Ohio Council of Community Schools has approved contracts to sponsor 13 new charter schools, including the Akron Academy of Excellence.


“Just because we sign a contract by the deadline, which was today, doesn’t [guarantee] that any school will open,” Frank W. Stoy, the sponsor’s chief operating officer, said Tuesday.


Schools still have to meet several requirements, among them demonstrating adequate finances to open.


“Obviously we’ll do an evaluation of the financial resources that the school had proposed,” Stoy said. “How are they going to fund? How are they going to get money to open?”


When charter schools first opened in Ohio in the late 1990s, new schools would receive a $50,000 startup grant from the state and $450,000 from the federal government spread over three years. Those days are over. New charter schools have to get going under their own steam.


Tarle must clear other obstacles, too.


The Gus Johnson Community Center, at 1015 S. Hawkins St., adjoins the United Baptist Church. A charter school at that location would require Board of Zoning Appeals approval, according to Michael Antenucci, zoning manager in the city’s planning department.


“That’s news to me,” Tarle said when informed by a reporter. “Didn’t know that.”


Pending charges


Tarle also says he did not know he had pending criminal charges in Akron Municipal Court, which is why he missed his original April 23 arraignment.


The city of Akron has charged Tarle with five misdemeanors regarding a property at 2191 19th St. SW. He is charged with failure to maintain electric service, failure to provide heat, failure to maintain water and two housing code violations.


Tarle said he transferred his ownership rights in the company that owns the property to his wife, Amy Tarle, in 2009. The transaction was recorded at the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office and is available online.


He said the city should have checked that out before charging him for violations regarding a property he doesn’t own.


City officials are confident they’ve charged the right person, Assistant Law Director John York said.


“What the housing code requires is that owners, operators or occupants all comply with housing code orders. They’re all responsible,” York said. “So the fact that he might not be the titled owner or statutory agent, doesn’t mean that he’s not responsible for the repairs. What it means is the city is going to have to offer evidence that proves he’s the operator, like a landlord or an agent of the owner.”


An Akron Municipal Court clerk said the office sent Tarle a letter to his home address informing him about the April 23 arraignment.


However, Tarle said, he never received a letter. Rather than issue a bench warrant for Tarle’s arrest, the court set a new arraignment date.


He has pleaded not guilty and has a hearing scheduled for May 30.


Tarle recognizes that his history in Akron politics might generate skepticism about his qualifications to run a school.


“I know I’m a controversial figure in Akron and I’m an easy target,’’ he said.


‘Rags to Riches’


Tarle graduated from Central-Hower High School in 1983 and received a bachelor of arts in education in 1992 and a master’s degree in political science in 1995, according to school officials.


After becoming the city’s first politician to be recalled by voters, Tarle set out to make a million dollars in the real estate market by fixing and selling houses.


He told the Beacon Journal in 2009 he had reached that goal, at least on paper, when he launched a “Rags to Riches” website and infomercial.


“Ernie Tarle made over $1,000,000 in just over three years starting with almost nothing,” the site proclaimed. “He did it by buying and selling houses in a depressed market [Akron, Ohio] and now he’s ready to share his secrets with you.”


Tarle offered his Rags to Riches system for 30 days for only $9.95, which included a manual, a CD, a contract workbook and several gifts.


He said the promotion lasted about a week. A sour real estate market and an investment that didn’t pan out in Florida resulted in him losing everything and needing a fresh start.


In 2007, he returned to Akron with bad credit and about $243,000 in bank liens.


He made an unsuccessful run at his old City Council seat in 2009 and helped his buddy Zack Milkovich, a first-time candidate, beat John Otterman in the Democratic primary and a Republican challenger in November to claim the 45th District Ohio House seat in 2010.


Educators offer guidance


Now Tarle says he has found his true calling in education.


For the past several months, he has been getting advice about how to run a high-quality charter school from Marshall Emerson III, the founding head of school of Entrepreneurship Prep School in Cleveland, which opened in 2006.


E-Prep is now part of the Breakthrough charter schools network in Cleveland that is playing a prominent role in Mayor Frank Jackson’s reform plans for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.


In 2010, Emerson and E-Prep’s former academic chief, Jason Stragand, launched a nonprofit charter management company called I-Can, which operates four K-8 Cleveland charters. One is rated “Effective” (a B grade) and one is rated in “Continuous Improvement” (a C grade) on the latest state report cards. The other two are new and didn’t receive ratings last year.


Emerson and Stragand have tried to answer all of Tarle’s questions about how to open a similar school in Akron.


“Those two guys were two people who bought into Ernie Tarle and the Academy of Excellence idea and so they’ve been guiding us ever since, and it’s really been amazing,” Tarle said.


Tarle’s school will not be an I-Can school or a Breakthrough school, but he hopes it will be similar in teaching approach and culture.


“When you go into the Academy of Excellence, it’s going to look and feel just like an I-Can school or just like a Breakthrough school, but they will not get our credit nor our blame in the end,” Tarle said.


Emerson said Tarle has visited the I-Can schools several times over the past several months.


“A lot of people have the right intentions in Ohio when they start charter schools, but let’s be honest, most of them are crap,” Emerson said. “So I think that he’s doing the right thing. He’s doing his diligence. He’s visiting the right programs, and I believe he has his heart in the right place.”


Tarle has a board of eight community members who will govern the school, including Gerald Gould, who has long been active in West Akron as a youth advocate.


“It was his idea and his baby,” Gould said. “Actually, he and I both sat down and talked about this thing and brought it to fruition. However, now it’s business and he’ll be working for us. We won’t be working for him.”


Tarle said he welcomes a tough, transparent board to oversee the school.


“This is my highest calling. Helping inner-city kids to get the education and a real chance in life is the best thing I can think to do and that’s why I’m here,” he said. “It’s my third act.”


Beacon Journal staff writer Stephanie Warsmith contributed to this report. John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the education blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/education.