Questions swirl around private school
By ANITA KUMAR and STEPHEN HEGARTY
ST. PETERSBURG -- Each morning, a white van drops off a couple dozen school-age children at the historic Rutland mansion.
Inside the 75-year-old city landmark, the children attend classes at Excellence Academy, listed in state records as a religious school for up to 60 students, kindergarten to 12th grade.
Excellence Academy receives thousands of dollars in state support. Four children have their tuition paid by Florida taxpayers through the McKay Scholarship voucher program for disabled children.
But in recent days, the school has become the focus of concern for neighbors, city officials and the state of Florida.
Neighbors complain that the large waterfront house on Sunrise Drive S is unsafe for children who aren't being adequately supervised. The house has fallen into disrepair in recent years and is in foreclosure.
The city of St. Petersburg has cited Excellence Academy for code violations and not having a proper license to operate a school. City records show that the water was shut off for nonpayment.
Now the state is withholding voucher payments until the school, which has moved at least four times in the past year, complies with health and safety codes.
"It blows my mind. They're getting taxpayer dollars for this? That's not right," said Cassie Rucks, who lives directly across the street with her husband, Ed. "We just feel it's no place for a school; it's a single-family house. It's less like a school situation and more like day care." The state is threatening to suspend all payments to the school. It sent the school $7,118 in September for the four children -- the first of four such payments in the school year.
But the state withheld the second payment, due Nov. 1. The reason was that the school had not provided documentation that the children actually were attending class at Excellence Academy.
Angela Sweet, 44, who runs the school, refused to comment Friday but told neighbors and code inspectors earlier this week that she lived at the mansion and did not need permission to home school children there.
The state largely takes a hands-off approach to the private schools that accept McKay Scholarships. The state does not require that teachers be certified, nor that they hold a college degree. In fact, schools may employ teachers who "have special skills, knowledge or expertise that qualifies them to provide instruction in subjects taught."
"It truly is a buyer beware situation," said Skardon Bliss, director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools, which accredits 157 private schools statewide by holding them to a series of academic standards.
Bliss said many schools that participated in the McKay Scholarship program had been in business for years and ran top-notch academic programs.
"The mainstream independent schools don't like to see this, where someone turns their living room into a school and moves around," Bliss said.
Besides Sweet, who, neighbors and others say, is the only teacher at the school, three other people are listed on 2001 state records as directors of the school -- Deborish Bailey, Deborah Sweet and Eddie Robinson. They could not be reached Friday.
Sweet, who has five children ages 8 to 15, claimed to be unemployed and unable to afford an attorney when she filed for divorce Sept. 26 in Pinellas County.
Her husband of 22 years, Richard Sweet, was affiliated with the school at one time. He has been arrested repeatedly over the last eight years on cocaine charges and is wanted on shoplifting charges.
Before moving to Rutland, the school was at 49th Street S at the Breakthrough Christian Center, where at least 20 people were victims of a scam in which they paid for luxury cars that didn't exist.
Pastor James Blout of Moore's Chapel in St. Petersburg said Sweet, whom he did not know, had called him a couple of months ago looking for a temporary home for her school. She told Blount that the church she had been using had relocated and that she didn't have anywhere to go.
"She was desperate for help," he said.
Excellence Academy stayed for about a month, he said. The school left about three weeks ago, but Blount didn't know where Sweet had moved.
That's about the time the school moved into the Rutland house, neighbors say.
The former Rutland mansion, home of several prominent St. Petersburg families and the site of a nightclub during Prohibition, is owned by Annette Martino, who ran a chain of mental health care facilities now in bankruptcy.
The Rutland house is now bare, furnished with just a few folding chairs and a plastic Fisher Price table. Some math and writing books sit on shelves, along with crayons and markers.
On Tuesday, city inspectors cited the property for broken wires, exposed light fixtures, missing porch screens and various other problems. They set a Nov. 12 deadline for the problems to be corrected.
"Does the state even know anything about these schools? Or do they just send them the money?" neighbor Jane Wolfe asked. "Who is watchdogging this program?"
In an Oct. 31 letter to Angela Sweet, the director of scholarship programs for the Florida Department of Education expressed concern about the accusations of health and safety code violations.
Sweet has been given 20 days to respond to the allegations.
The McKay Scholarship program offers state-funded vouchers that enable parents to send their children to a participating private school. About 7,000 children are participating in the program this school year, including 580 from Pinellas County.
Students are eligible for the program if they attended a public school and were identified as having some form of disability, which could range from a physical impairment to a mild learning problem.
Schools are eligible if they can demonstrate financial stability by having been in existence for at least a year or by offering a statement by a certified public accountant confirming their fiscal soundness.
-- Staff writers Mike Brassfield and Leanora Minai and researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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