One director, two schools mismanaged
By COLLINS CONNER and KENT FISCHER
A new school was in chaos: Missing money. Haphazard administration. A director under fire.
That reads like the scene last week at the Deerwood Academy charter school in Port Richey. But it also describes Saint Leo's Ocala campus eight years ago.
The common element: Hank Johnson.
Johnson directed both schools, led them into turmoil and, in both cases, was removed as director.
He came highly recommended for both jobs -- with 20 years of educational experience in and out of the classroom, he seemed the perfect leader.
Indeed, even after Johnson's abysmal management was exposed, some co-workers at both Saint Leo and Deerwood staunchly defended Johnson. They said he was targeted for the misdeeds of others. At Saint Leo, Johnson's administrative assistant was fired when approximately $1,600 in cash disappeared. At Deerwood, Johnson's right-hand man, a lifelong con man, is suspected of looting school accounts.
No one at either campus claims Johnson, 51, pocketed school money, but the degree of his mismanagement has baffled superiors and associates alike.
"He's a very smart man," said Mary Smith, a former staff member of Saint Leo's accounting department, who spent a year trying to straighten out the books at the Ocala satellite office. "He is very personable and has such charisma that people just follow him."
However, she said, Johnson was also "too competent" to make or allow the kind of questionable decisions that plagued both campuses.
Johnson, in an interview earlier this month, acknowledged doing "some boneheaded things" at Deerwood.
"None of us are great at business," he told the Times on Oct. 9. "I messed up something fierce. I'm the first to admit it."
He shrugged off a State Attorney's Office investigation of Deerwood's books.
"I don't care what the State Attorney will say because I know I didn't do anything," he said then. "I work for a Jewish carpenter. I know I didn't do anything wrong."
Johnson's career history isn't as glowing as his resume suggests.
A math teacher for 17 years, he took an unpaid leave of absence from Deerfield Beach Middle school in 1991 "to continue my research as well as technical work in the field of self-efficacy."
Just months before, he'd been reprimanded for making sexist remarks to a teacher. That same year, he was rated as "unsatisfactory" on his employee evaluation because of his poor classroom control and lackluster attendance at teacher meetings.
He didn't get high marks the year before either. The evaluator said Johnson's management of student behavior was "hit and miss." He said Johnson had previously "demonstrated questionable judgment and weak management skills."
Sister Jerome Leavy, who was Johnson's boss and then his employee at Saint Leo, said she didn't think Johnson's resignation from Broward "was completely his choice."
"I think it was part politics, part the administration he was working for."
After leaving South Florida in 1991, Johnson worked briefly in Hernando and Pasco school districts and as an adjunct professor at Saint Leo. In 1994, he was appointed director of Saint Leo's new satellite campus in Ocala.
Leavy, who is Johnson's friend, worked with him at Saint Leo; she left the Ocala campus after a dispute with Jerry Dyer, who was then the supervisor of off-campus programs.
She said she doesn't know what occurred at the Ocala campus after she left, but believes Johnson "wound up taking the blame for some stuff that was really other people's mistakes or interpretations of what he had done."
She and others from Saint Leo said cash came up missing; the likely suspect was Johnson's administrative assistant, who died in July.
Johnson "is a trusting person," Leavy said. "He does tend to believe what people tell him."
But Ed Norris, who took over the Ocala operation after Johnson was removed, said there were other irregularities.
"I found a couple of things in his desk that didn't belong there," Norris said. Among them were "blank checks (totaling $70) that should have been made out" and deposited.
Norris said Johnson left the campus "a shambles."
"We're not talking just money stuff. We're talking about work not completed, graduation applications dating back three years, people who had not received diplomas," he said. "He didn't have any supervision of the people he worked with."
Mary Smith, who was keeping the Ocala books at Saint Leo's main campus, also cited multiple problems: students accepted into programs they weren't qualified to attend; a computer class that lost money for Saint Leo.
"It was a big mess there," she said, with Ocala clerks crediting tuition to student charge cards instead of charging tuition.
"They were running (the charges) through the wrong way and then they would try to fix it and it would compound the problem," she said. "Meanwhile, our figures are all off because we're giving money out to the students instead of taking it from them. "I worked hours and hours to straighten out these credit card things. It took me almost a year."
Smith also cited "at least three instances where money was paid in (for tuition) that did not go into student accounts."
At the very least, she said, Johnson can be faulted for his poor oversight. "They were just too loose with the way they handled money, and the record keeping was terrible."
Ed Doran, a retired vice president of academic affairs at Saint Leo, said he "could never really establish any clear evidence of wrongdoing" by Johnson, but that the former campus director was "inept in managing the bookkeeper functions."
On the other hand, Johnson did what he was hired to do, said J. Larry Hart, Johnson's lawyer. The satellite programs grew; enrollment increased, and students received services, he said.
"He was in charge of nurturing and growing a student body, and that happened," Hart said. "Enrollment grew from 300 to more than 1,100, and a quality education got delivered."
But, according to Hart, Johnson fell into disfavor when he questioned Saint Leo's efforts to squeeze more money from students.
Jerry Dyer, Johnson's immediate supervisor at the time, said Johnson "was always very placating" when confronted with complaints. "It was always, "Yes, yes, I understand completely. We'll fix that,' " he said. But nothing got fixed.
Once Johnson was removed as director, the Ocala problems ended, Dyer said.
Those questions of mismanagement, fiscal irresponsibility and poor supervision should sound familiar to the people examining the books at Deerwood Academy, the charter school Johnson founded and ran in Pasco County.
Pasco school administrators first grew concerned over Deerwood's finances in January. A district review turned up extremely sloppy bookkeeping and inadequate financial records. Bills were being paid without receipts or invoices to back them up.
But because Deerwood, as a charter school, is a public school operated by contract with the School Board, district administrators could do little but suggest changes.
Johnson seemed agreeable. In interviews at the time, he said he was working to correct "every deficiency" the review found. He told district administrators that he had reached agreements with his bank that limited who had access to school accounts. Two signatures would be required on all school checks. He was reconciling school accounts monthly, he said, and receipts were on hand.
Olga Swinson, director of finance for the school district, said it's clear now that none of those changes were made.
"We can't find any evidence that he ever did any of it," she said.
District auditors have tracked nearly $48,000 in checks written over a single 10-week period last spring for expenses that can't be verified. During April alone, Deerwood's check register shows the school paid more than $23,400 for air conditioning repairs that were not made.
School officials believe more than $65,000 of taxpayer money is missing from Deerwood Academy. The final tally could be two or three times that when the books are straightened out, Superintendent John Long has said.
"Hank indicates that he's better at nurturing and developing an academic environment than he is at minding the finances," Hart said. "Is that an excuse? No. It's an explanation."
School officials aren't sure yet who got the missing money, but they have their suspicions.
High on the list is Jeffrey Alcantara, a felon with a long history of fraud, investment scams and bad check writing. Soon after Deerwood opened, he became Johnson's right-hand man and the school's main contact for local businesses. Not long after that, Johnson put Alcantara's teenage daughter, Nicole, in charge of the school's financial books. Deerwood has an annual budget of about $850,000.
Such decisions have auditors and investigators returning to the same question: Was Hank Johnson in on the scam, or was he just a gullible dupe?
"That's the $64,000 question," said Jonathan Bentley, the new president of Deerwood's Board of Trustees. "What did Hank know, and when did he know it?"
Hart, Johnson's attorney, said Johnson is only now learning of the scope of the fraud at Deerwood. And he's learning about it just like everybody else: in the newspapers.
"He didn't know anything about what was going on," Hart said. "Looking back, he now realizes that there was motive, means and opportunity for others to have done this. He feels exploited."
As the investigation continues, many important questions remain unanswered:
Why did Johnson implicitly trust a felon with a 20-year rap sheet?
Even after Alcantara's criminal past came to light, Johnson kept him on the payroll. In July, four months after Alcantara resigned, Johnson paid him $7,587 for clearing brush on the campus. Even up to a few weeks ago, Johnson loyally defended Alcantara. In a Sept. 18 e-mail, Johnson accused district administrators of defaming Alcantara by distributing an "inaccurate" rap sheet to parents.
Why didn't Johnson hire a competent bookkeeper? Even in August, when he got a grant to do so, he hired Larry Forbes, a buddy of Alcantara. Forbes' previous work experience: He was a hotel bellhop on Clearwater Beach.
And why didn't Johnson recognize that Deerwood was unnecessarily hemorrhaging money?
"The answer to those questions will be found by following the money," said Hart, Johnson's attorney. "And if you follow the money, it will not lead you to Hank Johnson."
DEERWOOD ACADEMY CHRONOLOGY
OCT. 1, 2000: Hank Johnson submits application to open Deerwood Academy. Approved by Pasco School Board in November.
MAY 24, 2001: Johnson hires Nicole Alcantara, 17, as administrative assistant.
AUG. 13, 2001: Deerwood opens with 160 students.
NOV. 28, 2001: As Deerwood's new bookkeeper, Nicole Alcantara starts signing checks.
JAN. 22, 2002: audit cites lack of employee background checks, no financial oversight and conflict of interest on Board of Trustees.
FEB. 2, 2002: In reply, Johnson says he "fixed every deficiency."
FEB. 26, 2002: District tells Johnson of employee Jeff Alcantara's criminal past.
MARCH 1, 2002: Jeff Alcantara resigns.
MAY 2, 2002: Deerwood renews lease. Jeff Alcantara signs as witness.
JUNE 13, 2002: Follow-up audit by district finds some improvement over January report, but not in finances and accounting.
SUMMER 2002: Jeff Alcantara works at Deerwood as "contract labor." He's paid $7,587 for "clearing brush."
MID AUGUST 2002: Johnson hires new bookkeeper, Jeff Alcantara's friend Larry Forbes, who has no experience.
AUG. 16, 2002: Johnson writes Gov. Bush, saying Pasco administrators "constantly harass us with threats." District officials call him "loose" with facts.
AUG. 20, 2002: Johnson caught lying to School Board about a new lease. Says year-end financial report will be late, blames district staff.
SEPT. 18, 2002: Johnson accuses district of slandering Jeff Alcantara by distributing an "inaccurate" criminal history.
OCT. 1, 2002: Deerwood misses deadline for state required audit.
OCT. 12-14, 2002: Times reports $20,747 Deerwood check that was altered and cashed. Times also uncovers $14,000 paid for repair work never done. District freezes Deerwood grants.
OCT. 15, 2002: District takes control of Deerwood's finances. State attorney begins investigation.
OCT. 16, 2002: Johnson fired as director of Deerwood.
OCT. 18, 2002: Times reports $65,000 in bogus invoices and altered checks paid to friends of Jeff Alcantara.
OCT. 19, 2002: Nicole Alcantara and two relatives fired from school.
OCT. 21, 2002: District installs new principal, takes over operations of school.
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