It’s fair to say that Mark Melvin believes in Marco Island Academy, the island’s public charter high school that is nearing completion on east San Marco Road. It’s also fair to say that when Melvin believes in something, he puts his money where his mouth is. For the second time during the academy’s Capital Fundraising Campaign, Melvin is putting up a $1 Million Match.
During Melvin’s first $1 Million Match, the match came so soon—in less than a month—that he had to make a quick call to his accountant.
“A number of donors contributed toward the campaign last year,” Melvin said. “We were successful in raising the $1 million last year. We did it pretty fast. We got about $150,000 through smaller donations. Then someone came through and—boom!”
“Steve and Barbara Slaggie,” MIA Founder and Board Chair Jane Watt recalled. “That was a first-time gift. $1 million was their first gift. I’d never met them before. They saw it in the newspaper.”
An incentive to those who may be considering a donation comes in the way of the Cares Act.
“Part of the Cares Act provides relief for people who were out of unemployment and all different things,” Melvin said. “But one of the things in the Cares Act provides for people to continue and even possibly do a little bit more to help non-profit organizations with their donations, so they won’t dry up. In the Cares Act, they didn’t make provisions for people who might donate to their own personal foundations or to a donor-advised fund. Or something like the Collier County Community Foundation. That’s because they’re helping other non-profits. But for a direct non-profit like MIA, they upped from 60% to 100% of your AGI your ability to donate cash. They also expanded what you can do with your mature stocks, properties, etc. that you’ve held long term, so you could carry over.
“So, in talking over the past week to my accountant about various things, he said, ‘This might be beneficial, I don’t know, we’ll have to run some numbers. It helps this year, but you’re going to have to carry over.’ We talked through a couple of scenarios. I said, ‘I really want to help the school this year.’ He said, ‘It might not be the best move, but it won’t be the worst.’ I love the way he thinks. He said, ‘Let your heart rule the things you want to do philanthropically.’
“Last year, we did the donation of $1 million as a matching grant. We’ll do the same thing this year to match any donations that come in. Hopefully, that will help reinvigorate other people to take advantage through the Cares Act. Maybe they hadn’t even thought about Marco Island Academy before, and this may incentivize them.”
Melvin feels you can’t overestimate the importance of MIA. “The school’s so important to the community and the island, to have a foundation, a home for the kids. It’s important when people are looking to buy on the island as a family. Their kids won’t have to ride a bus 45 minutes or longer to get to school; it’s important. There’s a few things that are foundational in any community. You have to have good schools. You have to have a good police department. Along with that, you have to have a good fire department. A few good stores. Once you have those things, the other things will build and thrive from there. If you don’t have those things, the community lacks. It’s not completely glued together.
“For me, I wasn’t very into school as a kid. What I saw happening here, the way they approach education, it’s the type of education I would have been more attuned to. A lot of teachers just stand up there and talk for 45 minutes, versus having experiential learning. Getting up there and getting the kids involved. Providing them opportunities to express themselves differently.”
Watt said that Melvin is unique among philanthropists.
“We were on the campus the other day and a robot came flying around the corner,” Watt stated. “Mark said, ‘There’s the robot.’ He bought robots that we’re using in the engineering classes. They’re assembling them right now. We have filters that we’ve put in every single classroom, in every single office that filters the air to keep the students safe. He donated those, too. He thinks about the kids, not just from an academic standpoint. It’s comprehensive; keeping them safe, making sure they have the tools to enhance learning, and providing a permanent structure for them, too. It’s really unique. Not everyone has that type of approach to philanthropy and giving.”
“Sometimes learning needs to be fun and it needs to be different,” Melvin said. “It needs to make sense to the kids. I took a year off after graduating high school and worked for the Governor of Ohio. Spent a lot of time on the road on his campaign. I really saw how things worked. When I got to college, I was very disillusioned. I’ve been working since I was 12, I had a lawn business. I hired other kids to work with and for me. I held retail jobs and other jobs. By the time I got to college, I had a feel for what work–life was all about. But even in high school, school really didn’t hold my interest.
“I see the opportunity at MIA every day, every time I come out here. I see students engaged in their classes. I think that’s a very important thing. I don’t think every school provides that. When you look at the performance of MIA, it’s amazing what they’ve been able to do with what we have over there. You take that and you look at this new campus and you think, ‘And now we’ll have this to add to that.’ To have athletics on the campus. To have real classrooms with real equipment. It will be a game–changer. It will take what is already great and make it better.”
Both Melvin and Watt have high praise for Principal Melissa Scott and Dean of Students Kevin Ray.
“We have a real gift in Miss Scott and Mr. Ray,” Melvin said. “Their approach to how they handle the students, handle the staff. They care so much about the students and about the school. Every decision is made with the students in mind. They’re constantly coming to Jane and the board. We’ve been blessed in a number of ways with people stepping up. We have a tremendously generous community here on Marco. But also a very caring community that doesn’t just throw money at the problem. They think about, ‘Here’s the problem, how do we best solve it?’ Miss Scott and Mr. Ray oftentimes come to the board and with different ways to solve a problem. And they’re very open and supportive of input. They’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I love that idea.’ Or ‘Here’s why that won’t work.’”
“It’s important to have that dialogue,” Watt said. “With charter schools, we’re smaller. Our board and our donors work very closely with our administration. I talk to Melissa almost daily. We know what the school’s needs are.
“I love what Melissa Scott always says,” Watts continues. “She says, ‘We’ve always had a school. Now we’re going to have a home.’ We’ve always had that academic piece as a driving factor for us. But now, this is completing it. It’s completing the circle.”
“You look at the way Miss Scott runs the school,” Melvin said. “The way she cares about the students. Both personally and professionally; and takes an interest in them. They’re not just another kid at the school, they’re not just a number. That’s a big difference. She knows. She can look at a student and say, ‘Come here.’ Whether they’re not having a good day, or they are having a good day. She’ll say, ‘What’s going on?’ She cares. And that matters a lot. That flows down to the other teachers and the way they work with the students. I’ve sat through classes. I was like ‘Wow, why didn’t I have a class like that?’ MIA provides the student the ability to not only engage with the teacher, but to engage with each other. To have a discussion, to have meaningful input. You look at the percentage of kids who are doing ACE programs. And the scores they get on the tests. The results speak for themselves. How can we not do this? How can we not build this?
“Miss Scott, Mr. Ray, and Jane Watt especially, all deserve big credit for the vision, the direction, the determination to get this done. It wasn’t done without mistakes. But the ability to react, correct and learn, has been amazing. You don’t find in a public school or private school the growth to excellence that they’ve had very often, in that short a period of time. Top–rated, top–performing, A+ school. And we’re just a 10-year-old school. That’s really big.”
“As soon as Melissa joined the team, I knew she was it,” Watt said. “She came in the third year, she was an English teacher, but when I met her, I knew she had potential and that she could be so much more. We gave her a part-time job as a teacher and a part-time job as a development assistant for me. She took over the accreditation committee. When we interviewed for principal, she was the top contender. She came in and ate it up and took off from there.”
Watt and board member Marianne Iordanou, who heads the Capital Fundraising Campaign, have had a whirlwind 24-hour period.
“On Thursday, we received a gift of $100,000 for our English classroom,” Marianne Iordanou said. “From the grandparents of one of our newer students. They’re so happy and so thrilled to have their granddaughter here that they came and donated $100,000 and named the English classroom.”
Neither Watt nor Iordanou had an idea what Melvin had in store for them during their Friday morning board of directors meeting on Zoom.
“We were all shocked,” Watt said.
“So this morning, at our board meeting, Mark Melvin was presenting information on the Cares Act,” Iordanou said. “He does a lot of technology for our board meetings. He gets on and he said, ‘I’d like to talk about the Cares Act,’ which runs until December 31. So whatever we do with this we have to do very quickly. I’ve got this idea. We’ll put up another $1 Million Match and attract people to the project.’”
“I said, ‘I like this idea, but who’s giving the $1 million?’ And it got really quiet,” Watt said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not understanding this?’ Then he said, ‘I’m doing the $1 Million Match.’ So then I had to take a little break because I was so excited. I had to get up and dance around a little bit.”
Melvin met with his accountant just before the meeting.
“When my accountant called this morning, it was a pretty quick conversation,” Melvin said. “I was like, ‘We’re doing this.’ He said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ It was great timing. It was right before the board meeting. I thought, ‘I’ll sneak a little slide into my presentation,’” he said with a laugh.
“It was awesome,” a giddy Watt said. “He’s allowed to do that any time. I’m totally fine with it.”
“They were like, ‘What?’” Melvin said with a grin. “I said, ‘We’re going to have another matching campaign, we’re going to run another ad. We’re gonna do another $1 Million Match. There was like nothing. Not a sound.’
“I’m blessed that I’m able to do this,” Melvin reflected. “I feel very lucky that I’m able to do this. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it wasn’t a hard one. We have to do this. We need this done. It’s so important to the community, to the island, for its continued growth—for being a community—and not just a vacation destination.”
“It’s so crazy,” Watt said, “you think of someone giving a gift like this as a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So I think part of the reason everyone was so stunned today is because, for Mark, it’s a twice in a lifetime thing. It’s amazing once, but twice? Nobody saw it coming.”
With Melvin’s donation, MIA moves closer to fulfilling its capital campaign fund goal of $15.1 million.
“That brings us down to $2.950,000,” Iordanou said. “Once we match it, we will be down to $1,950,000. We’re very optimistic that this will help us reach our goal.”
“We can see the finish line,” Watt said.
“I don’t think I have any doubt that we’ll reach our goal,” Melvin said. “I probably wouldn’t have done it I had any doubt. I think that when you make an investment like that, you’ve gotta say, ‘Is this investment going to be a good investment? I didn’t come into my position by making a lot of bad decisions. I won’t by any means say I’m perfect. I won’t by any means say I don’t make mistakes. But you learn from mistakes and you’ve gotta keep moving on. But I have no doubt that we will succeed in this. And that we will keep this school going. We’re going to have a beautiful campus when the kids return in the fall. And we’re going to have a beautiful campus for them to graduate from in the Spring. They won’t get in there for classes, but we’ll get them in there for graduation in the gym—as long as COVID doesn’t mess that up.”
Watt and Iordanou said anyone interested in giving to the academy to contact them and arrange a tour of the facility.
“If someone is interesting in seeing what we’re doing,” Watt said, “is interested in a naming opportunity, or giving some other way, we’re happy to bring them through so they can have a visual of what we’re doing.”
Iordanou said donors who have toured the new campus all have the same reaction. When people come here, they say ‘Unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable!’