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Schools

Educator, activist Marva Dennard arrested in voucher thefts

Investigators say she rigged scholarship applications to get extra money.

By JACOB H. FRIES and WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writers
Published December 7, 2007


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Maya Dennard was principal of a private school in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG -- In 2001, Marva Dennard became director of a private school in Childs Park, saying she wanted to help African-American children. A large percentage of her students, disabled and poor, qualified for state scholarships.

"My purpose is to keep them out of prison," said Dennard, a prominent community activist.

But now, it is Dennard who is in trouble with the law.

On Thursday, she was arrested on charges that she stole more than $250,000 from state voucher programs intended to help low-income and disabled students. Charged with grand theft and aggravated white-collar crime, Dennard, 68, was being held in the Pinellas County Jail in lieu of $200,000 bail.

Her arrest came as a shock to many in the city's African-American community, where she is well known. In 1999, she ran unsuccessfully for the City Council seat now occupied by outgoing council member Rene Flowers. In 2004, she was named a finalist for business woman of the year by the Women's Council of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

"She impressed me as someone who had a hugely caring heart for other people's children, especially those children that she took under her wing or felt some sense of responsibility for their defense," said Darryl Rouson, a former leader of the St. Petersburg NAACP and a prominent black lawyer.

"I always liked her energy, her enthusiasm, her willingness to help. ... Some people argued that her managerial skills were lacking, but it certainly wasn't criminal, but it certainly could be chalked up to her humanness."

Dennard's school, Bishop Academy II, received more than $1 million from two voucher programs from July 2002 to June 2005, according to state investigators, who said she rigged scholarship applications to receive extra money. She also inflated the number of her students, falsely reported the cost of tuition and submitted an altered fee schedule to take advantage of the state programs, investigators said. The school closed in 2005.

"Stealing money intended to provide educational opportunities for Florida's students cannot and will not be tolerated, and I commend the investigators and prosecutors for holding this individual accountable," said Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who oversees the Department of Financial Services, which led the investigation.

The former volunteer headmaster, Rev. Don Gaskin of the New Philadelphia Community Church, said he never suspected Dennard of any wrongdoing. His church had been on school property at 3940 18th Ave. S, before relocating in 2005.

"We, the church, were concerned about the curriculum and teaching of the children," he said. "We didn't involve ourselves in any way with the administration."

This is not the first time that Dennard has been in legal trouble. In 2004, she was arrested on charges of aggravated child abuse after police said she struck a 13-year-old student with a paddle many times, bruising the student's elbow and putting several welts on her face.

Dennard said then that she believed in corporal punishment and parents signed statements saying they accept it. Prosecutors ultimately abandoned the case.

Gaskin described Dennard's latest arrest as unfortunate and said his prayers were with Dennard and her family.

"She has a real big heart when it comes to people," he said.

Jacob H. Fries can be reached at jfries@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8872.

[Last modified December 7, 2007, 03:28:45]


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