This two-part story about for-profit charter schools originally appeared in the New Times Broward- Palm Beach newspaper. Part 2 will appear next week in Gambit.
Before the songs, chanting, and heartfelt tears, the ceremony next door to a Palm Springs, Fla. strip mall begins with speeches. A thin, tanned man in a pinstriped suit is among the first to take the microphone. He's not famous but his receding hairline, rectangular face, and over-eager grin are familiar. "This is a hope factory," he begins. "This is a spiritual experience."
He stands in the lobby of what could be any office building in Florida, beside a reception desk festooned with red, white, and blue balloons. A sea of dignitaries surrounds him — a city commissioner from nearby Lake Worth, the mayor of Palm Springs, school board members, a pastor, teenagers wearing name tags that say "ambassador."
"I stuttered very badly as a kid," he continues, his voice warming to the rhythm of a much-repeated tale. "I was considered a dummy. I empathize with these kids in a very intimate way."
This is Frank Biden, the brother of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. He's here, at a ribbon-cutting event at the end of August 2011, to promote the first Palm Beach County location of a local for-profit chain of charter schools called Mavericks in Education Florida.
"You are all believers," Biden exhorts the crowd. "This thing spreads like wildfire."
In the past two years, eight Mavericks high schools have opened in Florida, including two in Broward, one in Palm Beach, and two in Miami-Dade counties. In 2011, Mavericks claimed to enroll more than 3,700 students.
The schools, all publicly funded and tuition-free, aim to succeed where many public schools fail. They promise to help kids who would otherwise drop out earn enough credits to graduate.
School districts are eager for the help. Just two-thirds of Florida students graduate — a rate that puts the state 44th in the nation, according to Education Week. The statistics are even worse for African-Americans and Latinos, who make up a majority of Mavericks students in South Florida. Mavericks opens schools in poor neighborhoods, welcoming students of all stripes, including those with jobs and children of their own. By taking online classes a few hours a day, they can earn a diploma.
But so far, Mavericks' lofty goals haven't materialized. Most of their schools graduate less than 15 percent of eligible students. On state report cards, the schools get "incompletes" because so few of their students are taking the FCAT [Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test]. In Miami, two former teachers filed whistle-blower lawsuits alleging the Homestead school is inflating attendance records and failing to report grades properly. There are also rampant financial questions, cozy ties between Mavericks and local politicians, and a legal fight with former celebrity spokesman Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat.
Mavericks has become a poster child for the problems that have long dogged charter schools in Florida. How can they help troubled kids while also turning a profit, especially when they are run by a man whose brother is next in line for the White House?
"Join us in our mission," Biden says. "If you don't feel a little bit of this energy today, then there's something wrong with you!"
Mavericks' story begins in Akron, Ohio, with a wealthy industrialist who loved to wear big cowboy hats and donate millions of dollars to Republican politicians. In 1998, David Brennan launched White Hat Management. His charter schools were housed in strip malls, and the students herded in to sit at computers for three shifts a day. This was an education model Mavericks would later call the "next generation in education." But state auditors weren't so fond of the company.
For years, the for-profit company refused to reveal how millions of tax dollars were divided between expenses such as teacher salaries and computers, and profits for White Hat. Meanwhile, many of the schools were given failing grades of "academic watch" or "academic emergency" by the Ohio Department of Education.
Last year, the boards of schools in Cleveland and Akron sued White Hat to terminate their contracts, alleging the schools were run without local input and money wasn't reaching the classrooms. This August, an Ohio judge ordered White Hat to open its books for discovery in the suit, but the information has not yet been published.
One of White Hat's early leaders was Mark Thimmig. As CEO from 2001 to 2005, he helped grow the company into one of the largest charter school chains in the country. As of 2010, White Hat had 51 charter schools in six states, including ten charter schools in Florida called Life Skills Centers.
Two years after leaving White Hat, Thimmig alleges in court documents, he was approached by Palm Beach Gardens developer Mark Rodberg about launching a chain of charter schools in Florida. Rodberg had built a few schools for White Hat, but had never run one before. He owned restaurants, including Bucky's Bar-B-Que in Boca Raton and Bucky's Grill in Fort Lauderdale. Together, Thimmig and Rodberg came up with a plan that was nearly identical to White Hat's: Students would attend school but take all their courses online, using virtual technology that required minimal maintenance. Classrooms could hold rows of cubicles with computers where kids would sit elbow-to-elbow. There would be no after-school sports teams, just "cyber-athletics" that allowed kids to play Wii instead of shooting hoops.
In its promotional packets, Mavericks hands out a news story citing a 2010 study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. According to the study, Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties are among the worst-performing districts in the country when it comes to serving black students. Only 39 percent of black males graduated in Broward in 2008, compared to 58 percent of white males. In Palm Beach, only 22 percent of black male students graduated, and in Miami-Dade, it was 27 percent. By targeting at-risk kids, Mavericks would try to alleviate this achievement gap.
Each school is overseen by a local, nonprofit board. Mavericks in Education Florida LLC then charges the nonprofit hundreds of thousands of dollars in management fees to run daily operations. Mavericks also handles the real estate, charging the schools $350,000 a year in rent.
Rodberg, Thimmig, and the other Mavericks founders drew up an ambitious business plan. The "build out objective" promised to open 22 charter schools by the 2011-2012 school year. The plan mimicked what Thimming had done in Ohio with White Hat. Meanwhile, newspapers in Ohio were questioning how White Hat hid its money and why its schools received failing grades from the state.
Rodberg's sister, Lauren Hollander, later joined the company as manager of Mavericks. She's a real estate broker in Palm Beach Gardens, and became a 20 percent owner of Mavericks in 2008, after lending Mavericks a cash infusion of $1.2 million. She says she didn't hear about the problems with White Hat. "I don't know any of that history, honestly," she says. Hollander says her brother got to know Thimmig while building several White Hat schools.
Rodberg had more than just charter schools in his plans. He was trying to launch a chain of restaurants named after Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. That partnership led to a bizarre beginning for the Mavericks charter schools.
In August 2007, Rodberg struck a deal with Wade to market a chain of restaurants. Their third business partner was Richard von Houtman, a man who called himself a baron and lived in a Boca Raton mansion purchased with funds from a drug lord. Rodberg shut down his Bucky's restaurants and reinvented them as "D. Wade's Place." They were to be upscale sports bars, with burgers and flat-screen TVs.
"Mr. Rodberg and Mr. von Houtman led [me] to believe that they had much experience and expertise in the restaurant business," Wade later claimed in court, "and that this deal could make everybody a lot of money."
Two months later, a chain of schools was added to the deal with Wade. Rodberg, Thimmig, and a third partner launched "Mavericks High D. Wade's Schools," a soon-to-be chain of charter schools based in Fort Lauderdale. In court documents, Thimmig alleges the plan was simple: He would contribute his expertise and "a design model for the schools." Rodberg would chip in $1 million in cash, take out a $1 million credit line, and would bring in Wade "to make appearances on behalf of the schools." Hollander says the charters planned to use the basketball star as a celebrity spokesman, encouraging kids to enroll in Mavericks and graduate.
Aside from the celebrity connection, Mavericks appeared to be White Hat for the Sunshine State. Along with Rodberg and Thimmig, Maverick's third original investor was Cathy Wooley-Brown, a former senior vice president for White Hat in Florida. The company also hired Bonnie Solinsky, who ran a White Hat school, the Life Skills Center of Pinellas County, that closed last year. Solinsky is now Mavericks' director of curriculum.
But pairing schools with a restaurant chain and a basketball star turned out to be a lethal mix. Wade would later allege in court documents that the partners were scheming to cut him out of profits. When they asked him to invest $1 million in the Aventura location of the restaurant, he refused.
According to Rodberg and von Houtman, Wade demanded a higher ownership share of the restaurant chain. When Rodberg and von Houtman refused, Wade refused to show up for photo ops and commercials. The partners sued Wade in December 2008. By then, the restaurants had closed, and Rodberg was losing cash fast. His Millennium Plaza landlord sued him for failing to pay rent on the Fort Lauderdale Bucky's. A Broward circuit court judge eventually ordered Rodberg and Bucky's to pay Millennium Plaza $3.4 million, but Rodberg appealed the ruling and won. This August the Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled the trial court had not properly determined damages, and sent the case back to Broward, where records show it has not yet been resolved.
In March 2009, Thimmig announced Mavericks was also ending its relationship with Wade. The star flaked out, didn't appear in TV or radio ads and wasn't returning calls, Thimmig claimed. Wade's name disappeared from Mavericks' school signs. Another lawsuit was filed. Rodberg and Hollander demanded $115 million from Wade for reneging on the restaurant and charter school deals.
Meanwhile, Mavericks' relationship with CEO Thimmig also began to sour. By October 2009, Thimmig had helped Mavericks open four schools — in Homestead, Kissimmee, Largo, and North Miami Beach — and enroll 950 students. Each new student brings in roughly $6,900 in state funding and $700 from the federal government, according to documents Mavericks submitted to the Florida Department of Education.
But Thimmig was worried. He wrote a letter to the company's board warning that although they were turning a profit, they were understaffed and financially struggling. Rodberg never contributed the capital he had promised, Thimmig alleged in court.
Thimmig thought investors who could provide the needed cash infusion were scared off by the Wade lawsuit. "Potential investors did not want to get involved with a company where the principals were suing the other business partners," Thimmig alleged. (Thimmig declined to comment for this article.) He wanted Wooley-Brown, Hollander, and Rodberg to sell their shares of the company to a New York-based private equity firm.
Rodberg and Hollander balked. They accused Thimmig in court documents of "misusing federal and state grant funds," mismanaging the budget, asking Mavericks employees to leave their jobs for other work, and hiring a company that he "owned or had an interest in" to clean the schools. They tried to kick him off the board.
In December 2009, Thimmig resigned as CEO. Then he sued Mavericks for back salary and money he said he lent the company — a total of at least $300,000. He also aired the company's dirty laundry in public court documents. Just two years after its founding, the hope factory was floundering.
Frank Biden sits in a windowless office at the Mavericks High in Palm Springs, leaning over the desk to make his point. It's a sparse, black desk with just a computer on it — no paper, no clutter. The freshly painted blue walls are bare. This isn't Biden's office, just a spare room the school's staff stuck him in to talk to a reporter. Biden, wearing a red tie and dark suit, says it's a "leap of faith" for him to grant an interview, because he doesn't want to embarrass his brother Joe. As he talks, you can still hear the trace of a lisp, the shadow of his childhood stutter.
"Everything I do... I've got to know that it could appear on the front page of The New York Times," Frank says. "Do my best never to do anything to besmirch [Joe's] reputation."
Frank has reason to worry. After serving as a legislative director in the Clinton administration, he worked with Hand in Hand Ministries, which provides scholarships to poor children in Nicaragua. There, he says, he contracted a nasty bacterial infection and came to South Florida to convalesce.
By 2003, however, there were signs of another illness. Around 8:45 p.m. on August 20, 2003, a Broward sheriff's deputy spotted Biden's '88 Chrysler making a wide left turn in Fort Lauderdale. Another driver said Biden had tapped his bumper at a stop light. The cop pulled the Chrysler over to investigate.
Biden's eyes were red, his speech slurred, and he reeked of alcohol. He could not tell the police officer "where he was or where he came from." An open, mostly-empty bottle of Popov vodka sat in his car. Biden lost his balance trying to touch his finger to his nose. A computer check revealed his license had already been suspended four times.
The cop booked him, and Biden pleaded no contest to DUI and driving with a suspended license. He was sentenced to six months of probation, along with six more months of a suspended license. But in October 2003, before the drunk-driving case made it to court, Biden was arrested again, for petty theft.
Employees at a Pompano Beach Blockbuster called the cops when Biden started arguing with them. A sheriff's officer arrived to find Biden trying to leave the store with two DVDs stuffed down his pants. Court records show he failed to appear for a hearing in that case, but documents were not available about the outcome.
A year later, in November 2004, Biden was arrested for a third time in Juno Beach. He pleaded no contest to driving with a suspended license. Rather than spend 30 days in jail, the judge allowed Biden to check into The Watershed rehab center in Delray Beach, where he stayed for three months in 2005.
Today, Biden says he's recovering from his addiction and has been "sober for a long time." "I was an alcoholic. I'm a sober person. I'm very proud of that fact."
By the fall of 2009, Biden was back on his feet, seeking investors for a country club development in Costa Rica that promises to include more than 1,200 homes. Press releases for the project call Biden the "co-developer" and show him smiling beside golf legend Jack Nicklaus, whose name will be on the golf course. Biden says he and his partners own the land, but are still seeking investors.
Meanwhile, back home in South Florida, Biden says he got involved with Mavericks after a simple chance meeting. He says he happened to meet Mark Rodberg in a coffee shop, and the developer told him about Mavericks.
At first blush, Rodberg's litigation record might give a potential business partner pause. He has had 49 civil cases filed against him in Palm Beach Circuit Civil Court in the past two decades. Most of the cases have been resolved, but one pending case, filed in June, alleges he stopped payment on a $4,000 rent check. (Rodberg could not be reached for comment. His only listed phone number is disconnected. When Biden was asked about speaking to Rodberg, he said questions should be directed to Hollander instead.)
According to Biden, Rodberg isn't the kind of guy who charms politicians; he's a guy who spits chewing tobacco into a cup. "But he does it eloquently."
After the coffee shop meeting, Rodberg invited Biden to visit a Mavericks school, and Biden says he was hooked. He began flying around the state in a private jet, lobbying school officials and local politicians to support the charters.
He calls himself president and director of development for Mavericks, but his name did not appear on any corporate documents filed with the Florida Secretary of State until New Times began questioning him about it. On Dec. 5, 2011, he was listed as president of the company. Frank Attkisson, a former state representative who once ran a state commission designed to approve charter schools that were rejected by local school boards, is vice president. Biden and Attkisson are also both registered lobbyist for Mavericks in Tallahassee.
"I'm a salesman," Biden says. "I'm nothing but a P.T. Barnum for these kids."
• In next week's Gambit: Part 2.