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Details and suspect in school fraud released

Marva Dennard is charged with the theft of over $250,000 while at Bishop Academy II.

Published December 8, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG -- Marva Dennard, the community activist arrested on charges that she stole more than $250,000 intended for low-income and disabled students, was released from jail Friday.

Pinellas County Judge Paul Levine decided Dennard, 68, wasn't a risk to flee. She had been held on $200,000 bail. The judge also ordered her to stop doing business under her not-for-profit Bishop Academy II corporation.

The former City Council candidate is charged with grand theft and aggravated white-collar crime. More details about those allegations were revealed Friday.

According to state investigators, Dennard's school, Bishop Academy II, received more than $1-million from two voucher programs from July 2002 to June 2005. They say she falsified scholarship applications to get 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.

State investigators said they found inconsistencies in Bishop Academy's student records by comparing scholarship applications with meal records. Students who were said to be enrolled in the school were not taking meals, investigators found.

Many of the students Bishop Academy claimed had been removed from the private institution and re-enrolled in public schools. According to the state Department of Education, the school started with 75 students and grew to 155 students.

The Florida Association of Scholarship Funding Organizations praised the state's Department of Financial Services for its investigation into use of the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship and McKay Scholarship program. The alleged overpayments amount to $17,871 from the tax credit program and $239,027 from the McKay program.

Scholarship checks are sent to schools, but must be endorsed by a parent, said Denise Lasher, spokeswoman for Florida PRIDE, which oversees the Corporate Tax Credit CTC Scholarship. Parents must then sign checks over to the school and also sign affidavits confirming enrollment, she said.

According to the investigation, Bishop Academy's CTC scholarship checks were not endorsed by parents, except for some that were signed following a demand for an audit by Florida PRIDE in 2003.

Florida PRIDE, an $88-million annual program, offers scholarships to 20,000 children every year. Schools can be randomly audited at any time.

"If we ever notice anything that looks strange, we notify the school immediately and ask them to show us some sort of documentation regarding the signature," Lasher said.

She said Florida PRIDE officials were unaware of irregularities with Bishop Academy II until they were contacted by state investigators earlier this year.

"We intend to recover every dollar," Lasher said.

Deborah Higgins of the Florida Department of Education said the department does not have the authority to audit the records of private schools.

Even though Bishop Academy closed its doors in 2005, the school kept receiving state money. In 2006, the Florida Health Department awarded the school a three-year grant for $150,000 a year to provide dental health education to children in the Midtown area. The Pinellas County Health Department, which acted as subcontractor to provide dental care, received $63,000 from the grant.

"We did know and understand that they have not been in operation as a school for two years,"Health Department spokeswoman Judi Spann said.

"We did not contract with them to provide school services per se. We contracted with them to provide outreach services to bring kids into the clinic to get preventative dental services and they were doing that."

Some who know Dennard said she showed no sign of having lots of money. She lives in the same house on Melrose Avenue S where she grew up and where her mother operated a beauty salon, said the Rev. Don Gaskin, who has known Dennard since they were children. Gaskin, who served as Bishop Academy's volunteer headmaster, also said Dennard drives an older car.

Gaskin, pastor of New Philadelphia Community Church, which once shared the property with Dennard's school at 3940 18th Ave. S, also said his church is owed thousands of dollars it gave to Dennard over two summers. He declined to reveal how much money his congregation gave to Dennard, saying only that it was in the five figures.

Gaskin said he and other members of his church, retired teachers and administrators, provided free services to the school five days a week. The congregation also fed the students and even provided utensils. Gaskin said state investigators approached him in 2006.

"I do remember the questions had to do with my relationship with Bishop Academy as the headmaster and it being a volunteer position and that I didn't receive any compensation for it and things of that sort," he said.

State Rep. Frank Peterman said he was surprised by the charges against Dennard.

"It's very unfortunate that it happened. She certainly was active with some work for the youth in our community over the years and there was a time when that work was good," he said.

Peterman's church, Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church, initially sublet part of the Bishop Academy property from Dennard before buying it.

Dennard's actions could give other African-American private schools a black eye, he said.

"I certainly hope this isn't held against the other schools."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at or (727)892-2283. Cristina Silva can be reached at or (727)893-8846. Times Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article.

[Last modified December 8, 2007, 00:43:31]

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