Marching Orders

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2004

A chill breeze flutters the Stars and Stripes in the courtyard of Sarasota Military Academy. On a winter Thursday morning, headmaster Dan Kennedy and his assistant, Robert Lechner, stand with their right hands over their hearts facing a sea of red berets and olive pants. Three straight-backed students in immaculate uniform, clipboards in hand, take attendance; as usual, almost all 400 students-divided into eight companies-have reported in.

"Sir, all accounted for, sir," shout the battalion commanders.

"Four hundred high school students being perfectly good before 7:30 a.m.," muses Kennedy. "Not too bad."

It's business as usual at Sarasota Military Academy, the two-year-old charter school that has built a reputation for no-nonsense academics, strict discipline and a waiting list that's starting to fill with preschool-age children. Co-founder Burt Bershon, a product of a military education and a longtime Sarasota businessman, believes the school can be replicated around the country; and last year, he established the nonprofit Charter Military Schools Development Corporation to do just that.

"There probably will never be another new private military academy as we know it because the initial capital is too high," says Bershon, sipping coffee in the tiny offices of his new corporation in the Belle Haven building downtown. "Instead," he says, "charter military schools offer a new model."

Bershon is riding a national wave of renewed interest in public military high schools that began in the '90s as parents, fed up with problems in public schools, began to clamor for the discipline and structure of the military model. In these schools, kids wear uniforms, answer "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am," turn homework in on time and are drilled in respect for their country. Military programs-mainly JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps)-have expanded to thousands of public high schools and now reach almost a million students. And school districts around the country, if they can get support from taxpayers, have also been creating separate public military schools. (By contrast, private U.S. military schools number about 48, down from the peak of 100 in the 1950s, and charge up to $30,000 a year.)

Charter schools, also increasing in popularity, can be a vehicle for establishing a public military high school. Often centered around a theme-such as dropout prevention, the arts or the military-charter public schools receive the same number of state dollars per pupil (in Florida, about $4,000 to $5,000) as regular public schools plus startup funds. Freed from many state requirements, such schools can control their own budgets as they like. There is also a ready source of dollars for military schools-public or private-if they qualify as ROTC schools: Half the payroll of officers who work as instructors is picked up by the armed forces. So is the cost of uniforms and equipment. Approximately $225,000 of Sarasota Military Academy's $2.7-million budget is funded through the armed forces.

Already, Bershon is setting up charter military schools in Toledo, Ohio; and in Gainesville and Ocala. He's working with organizers of a similar project in Broward County, and hopes to start negotiations in Manatee County and the Tampa/St. Petersburg area soon. His goal is to open 10 schools in the next two years.

Bershon's schools will employ a new business model: A nonprofit corporation, which raises money from foundations, will help establish his military charter schools. Establishing companies to set up and even run charter schools is a growing field, especially in Florida, which, since the Legislature approved them in 1996, has more than 50,000 students attending 227 charter schools. After Arizona and California, that's the third largest number of charter schools in the country. That's partly because Florida has no cap on how many charter schools can be established (North Carolina, for example, only allows 100), and because Florida is a high-growth state with young families moving in steadily, says Cathy Wooley-Brown, director of the Florida Charter School Resource Center.

And charter schools cry out for professional management, usually because the founders (often parents) may have passion and ideas, but little knowledge or experience running a school. When it comes to drawing up a curriculum, hiring teachers, managing a budget or dealing with the laws of school districts, many charter schools flounder.

"With a charter school, you start from nothing," explains Wooley-Brown. "You may be an educator, but you may not be well versed in business. There's legal [aspects]. You need experts."

Since charter schools have million-dollar-plus budgets, this is big business. Jon Hage is the chairman and CEO of Charter Schools USA, a Fort Lauderdale for-profit corporation that has just under 1,000 employees and runs 22 schools. "It's like running a multi-million-dollar company," he says.

School boards or municipalities hire Charter Schools USA to write curriculum, manage payroll and hire staff at charter schools and pay them funds earmarked for those purposes. The profit for a company like Charter Schools USA, comes in running the schools more efficiently than the school system would have.

"Schools typically average 20 to 30 percent overhead," Hage says. "We're at half or less."

For example, a school with a $2-million budget might normally incur overhead costs of $200-300,000, Hage can half or less that in overhead by sharing costs and resources among the many different schools his company runs. "We take a very, very small profit margin out of each school," says Hage. "We want the majority of the money to go back into the schools; it's in our business interests. If you're in it for a couple of schools, it's not profitable. We share resources among dozens of schools, and share expenses so each school does not pay all the costs each time. Then, it becomes a low-margin, profitable business."

But Bershon, who was one of the founders of the Community Foundation of Sarasota, has served on the boards of the YMCA and Riverview High School and is a 40-year Rotarian, says he doesn't want to run schools, just help them start up. He says he's more excited by the concept of military charter schools than by operating them, and besides, he's not expecting big financial rewards. As a non-profit, his corporation will invest most of any budget surpluses back into the business, he says. "We could go out and make a lot of money, charging high fees as a for-profit," says Bershon. "But I don't think people should be making money in philanthropy."

After spending two years getting SMA up and running, he thinks he can tighten the process down to six months. "We'll guide people through and end up with a nucleus, contacts, guidelines, military connections, curriculum requirements," he says. In states with more restrictive charter school laws, he will try expanding existing ROTC programs to five days a week within public schools, or try and set up a military academy within an existing public school.

Bershon will charge fees-$25,000 for each of the three phases of his services. Phase one is helping the founders with the startup process; phase two is working through details till the school door opens; and phase three runs through the first year of hiring teachers, enrolling kids and building community support. Schools may opt for all three phases, or pick and choose among them. In addition to state and federal funds, the schools will also raise money from foundations and trusts.

Funding will also come from his own "modest contribution" and loans from local corporations, such as W.G. Mills. Inc., a major supporter of SMA. His corporation will start off with a $250,000 annual budget for travel, planning and promotion for new schools, as well as salaries and benefits for Bershon and his only other full-time employee, vice president Kenny Hoffman.

Bershon faces some challenges. Hage, who also tried the nonprofit route before going to a for-profit model, says it was tough raising money. Grants are elusive in the first couple of years of a nonprofit's life, and Hage spent the first five years underwriting growth. Switching to a for-profit model enabled him to approach private investors and venture capital for start-up funds, and also to set broader goals, since the typical nonprofit usually seeks to run a single school.

Debra Jacobs, president of Sarasota's Selby Foundation, says, "Profits and nonprofits can be in the same business. There is no rule that one is better than the other." Still, she adds, the nonprofit route is often "harder to create and sustain" since founders must consult with a board of directors before making decisions. Investor motivation differs, too. For-profit investors want a return on their investment; nonprofit investors receive "an emotional return of doing good." While salaries in nonprofits can be as high (or low) as in a for-profit, Jacobs says people usually don't go into nonprofits for money.

Even if Bershon overcomes the financial hurdles, he faces the challenge of exporting an idea that was successful in Sarasota but may not be as workable in other areas.

A popular former principal of Sarasota High School, Kennedy who had become impressed by ROTC programs, and decided to work with Bershon to make their vision of a military academy a reality. Assistant headmaster Colonel Stephen Cork has a 27-year military history and a degree in business administration. And Sarasota has a rare pool of experienced professionals in various fields with time and money to contribute to a school like this.

"Our school has been so successful because of this vast pool of talented individuals in this area," agrees headmaster Dan Kennedy.

Kennedy says the school's top-level faculty and volunteers enable students to choose among such extra-curricular activities as fencing, martial arts, equestrian activities, aviation and sailing and to take after-school classes in classic Greek and Latin literature, Middle Eastern affairs and conversational Hebrew. Florida Charter School Resource Center's Cathy Wooley-Brown admits that some schools are hard to replicate because they are unique to a community. She says SMA, however, has taken a systematic approach to its structure, military partnerships, staff and schedule.

"Along the way, they have taken careful note of how they have done it," she says. "It is a model that can be replicated in other parts of the country and state."

Bershon, a Sarasota resident for 32 years, is optimistic. He capitalized on his local business contacts from 47 years in the insurance industry and his philanthropic activities when he started SMA. He also belongs to influential alumni organizations, including The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Culver Military Academy, where he spent much of his childhood and whose alumni include the likes of Charles Brumbach, former Chicago Tribune CEO, now a Southwest Florida resident and enthusiastic supporter of Bershon's corporation. One Culver grad recently donated $25 million to his alma mater, and that's a hopeful sign for Bershon.

"There's lots of networking, and it's important because this energy is going to come out of Sarasota," says Bershon.

Bershon recognizes that wealthy, connected people retire here, and stay active in their former communities. He's toying with the idea of asking such people to give seed money for a charter school named after them in their former hometown.

While some may see an eerie serendipity in the timing of the opening of a military school with post 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bershon and Kennedy say their planning began much earlier. But Bershon feels the timing couldn't be better for such an institution. Although Bershon does not intend for SMA or other schools to become "feeders" for military schools-he notes that he did not pursue a career in the armed forces-he welcomes anything that will teach kids patriotism.

"With our curriculum, kids learn the importance of respecting the United States and what we stand for," says Bershon. "Every kid should have a uniform on for one year; it would be a better country."

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