Educator arrested in voucher thefts

She is charged with stealing more than $250,000 in state education money.

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

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 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. In 1999, she ran unsuccessfully for the City Council. 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.

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.

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

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