Cerabino: Missing homework fells Florida’s charter-school champ

The former legislator who controlled school spending in the Florida House is going to jail.

It’s too bad it didn’t happen sooner.

For the past eight years, Erik Fresen shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near tax dollars — especially ones for the state’s public schools.

He was what you might call an interested party in the constant battle for public dollars that traditional public schools fight with privately run charter schools.

And all you had to do was look at Fresen’s activities when he wasn’t running the House committee in charge of the state’s education budget to figure out where he stood in that battle.

The Miami-area Fresen was a lobbyist for Academica, a charter school management company that operates more than 100 schools, most of them in Florida. And he was also a $150,000-a-year land consultant for Civica, the architectural company that builds charter schools for Academica.

Oh, yeah, and then there’s this: Fresen’s brother-in-law is the founder of Academica.

So it’s little wonder that in Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature, Fresen would take on a starring role as the architect of legislation that shifted tax dollars to privately run charters at the expense of district-run public schools.

For example, last year he fast-tracked a bill that would force public school districts to distribute a share of the tax money they receive for construction with charter schools. Fresen’s legislation capped the amount of money traditional schools could spend on construction — even if they raised additional money through local sales-tax initiatives.

Spending public dollars for improvements on privately owned property has proven to be a risky investment in Florida, which leads the nation in charter school closings. Those going-out-of-business schools have cost Florida taxpayers more than $70 million in expenses that weren’t recouped, according to a report by The Miami Herald and The Associated Press.

Fresen defended taking construction funds away from traditional public schools by arguing that he was just being a good steward of the public’s tax dollars, and that traditional public schools were wasting too much money on construction.

He wrote the Florida Association of District School Superintendents a letter last year to explain his move.

“I submit to you that as an elected official, I am every bit as responsible as superintendents for ensuring fiscal responsibility and stewardship of the taxpayers’ money,” Fresen wrote.

It’s too bad one of those school superintendents didn’t write back to him with this:

“Hey, Erik. Thanks for the lecture on fiscal responsibility and being a watchdog of the taxpayers’ money. But just out of curiosity, when was the last time you filed a federal tax return?”

If only they knew.

You see, it turns out that Fresen spent all eight years in the Florida Legislature without ever filing a federal tax return.

Imagine that. This was the guy who was so worried about the smarts of Florida teachers that he came up with a cockamamie plan to give merit raises to public schoolteachers only if they could prove they scored above the 80th percentile on their own high school SAT tests.

I don’t know what Fresen got on his high school SAT test, but what kind of genius takes a job handling tax money while failing to file his own tax returns for nine straight years?

So now, Florida’s most steadfast legislative champion for charter schools has had his own going-out-of-business moment. And there’s no way for us to recoup those eight years he spent in office.

The IRS filed a criminal complaint, and Fresen pleaded guilty to a single count of failing to file for the year 2011, a year in which his income was $270,136.

U.S. District Judge Robert Scola sentenced Fresen last month to 60 days in jail in an unusual sentence that jailed him for 15 days, then gave him 15 days of freedom over the course of four months. The idea, the judge said, was to give Fresen time to work so he could pay the money he owes.

And being that he just pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, Fresen will be eligible to resume his political career.

Look out, Betsy DeVos.

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