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    Vouchers for troubled Pinellas school cut off

    The school will no longer receive money from the McKay Scholarship Program.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 6, 2002


    The Excellence Academy private school that ran afoul of city codes and zoning regulations when it moved into the old Rutland mansion has been dropped from the state's voucher program for students with disabilities.

    The director of the school, Angela Sweet, was notified Thursday that her school will no longer receive state money.

    The school's status "will be changed from "approved' to "rejected' and the school will no longer appear on the McKay Scholarship Program's Web site," according to a letter sent by the state's director of voucher programs.

    State payments were suspended at the end of October, when state officials began to look into the school after complaints from neighbors and citations from the city. The second of four payments, due Nov. 1, was withheld and Sweet was given 20 days to convince the state that her problems had been remedied.

    "We put them on notice and they needed to show us that they fixed the problems," said Bill Edmonds, spokesman for the Florida Department of Education. "They haven't done that."

    Sweet could not be reached for comment Thursday.

    The letter from the state reflected confusion over where -- and whether -- Excellence Academy has been conducting class. Sweet told the Times and state officials that she was not holding school at the Rutland mansion, where she lives with her children. However, she gave its address to the state as the location of her school. And city officials and neighbors say it appears she has held school at the mansion, which has fallen into disrepair over the years.

    Addressing Sweet's contention that she was not running a school out of the Rutland property, the state wrote: "Observations recorded by city of St. Petersburg officials seem to conflict with this statement. Nonetheless if classes have not been held then the department would require an explanation for why you are entitled to funding for this period."

    In a letter last month, Sweet told the state that she was not conducting class at the Rutland mansion, but was temporarily operating out of a local library branch building. That resulted in a letter from the city to the state, explaining that she did not have permission to conduct school at the library.

    Under the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities, parents of disabled students can send their children to private schools and have the state pay tuition costs. According to state records, the Excellence Academy has four children participating in the McKay Program. The school received $7,000 for those children in the first of what was to be four annual payments.

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