In Milwaukee, Lifeskills Academy was a private K-8 school that joined the state voucher program five years ago. Over the years, Lifeskills Academy has received $5 Million in taxpayer funded public payments.
Last year, only one student scored “proficient” in reading, according to state records. Records show the school had only 66 students last year.
The school closed unannounced on December 12th. Due to the school closing mid-year, the state is not eligible to recoup this year’s money, which amounts to $202,278. For school year 2012-2013, voucher payments totaling $633,248 were made, according to Wisconsin Department of Education (DPI).
All Saints Catholic Church owns the building at 3434 N. 38th St, and rented it out to Lifeskills Academy. “They moved out, as people say, in the dead of night,” Father Carl Diederichs of All Saints said.
The money came out of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Voucher programs and private schools are widely lauded by those who champion the free-market and argue against regulations. Charter schools have proved problematic on many different levels, and there is a vigorous argument that charter schools do not solve the overall education problem in America. The school’s rise and fall illustrate how unstable operations and oversight are in charter programs. It also illustrates how government subsidies are a magnet for unscrupulous business people.
DPI began corresponding with the school in early December after DPI received many emails from someone named Dominic Robinson, who claimed they worked for the school. Right after, Dominic Robinson denied any knowledge of the emails to DPI. School owner Taron Monroe then confessed she sent the messages on behalf of Robinson, and that Robinson was not aware of the emails. While DPI tried to figure out how to respond to the school, Taron Monroe decided to close the school.
DPI knew at that point to cease making payments on behalf of students. The annual per-pupil payment is $6,442 and DPI makes the students payments split up over four yearly installments. Lifeskills had already gotten its first two annual payments for the school year. Whatever monies left over, if any, the owners took with them to Florida, where they fled to a life they had set up behind the scenes.
The owners of the school, Taron & Rodney Monroe, have been tracked down to Daytona, FL. The home they owned in West Bend had a foreclosure action filed against it in early 2013. Records show the Monroe’s now live in a gated community and started a new private Christian school in Daytona Beach this year.
While Likeskills Academy in Milwaukee was failing, the Monroe’s were telling Florida friends that they were successful in getting government grants for religious schools in Florida.
The home’s ownership shifted in 2011 from “Lifestyle Ministries” (the religious group run by the Monroe’s), to Taron Monroe’s personal name, according to real estate records. The foreclosure motion was filed in early 2013. The house was sold in a Sheriff’s sale in November, just weeks before the Monroe’s left and closed Lifeskills Academy.
“I haven’t seen them since before Thanksgiving,” said Bill Vigue, a pastor with a Christian radio show. He attended church with the Monroe’s in Florida.
DPI records show the school was nearly kicked out of the voucher program two years ago, because Taron & Rodney were listed as school administrators but they don’t have the required Bachelor’s Degree.
A spokesman for DPI said their authority is limited in what they can do to voucher schools, which are all private, and almost all religious schools. The law is limited and DPI cannot close a private school due to low academic performance. DPI also cannot do anything to a private school due to the owner’s personal financial status.