State investigating 5 schools

A closed Tampa academy is among the ones in which scholarship fraud is suspected.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - A closed Tampa Christian academy is among five private schools being investigated by the Florida Department of Financial Services in connection with scholarship funds for poor and disabled children.

The department's ongoing probe led to the recent arrest of Marva Dennard, 68, the former principal of Bishop Academy II in St. Petersburg, on charges of grand theft and aggravated white-collar crime.

The schools being investigated are Harvest Christian Academy, which was at 3800 N. Nebraska Ave., Ashnick Academy in Niceville, Liberty Christian School in Sanford, Teacher's Hands Academy in Orlando and Heritage Schools in Opa-Locka.

Brannon Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Financial Services, said the Heritage School case is awaiting trial, but the investigation continues.

The former principal of the Tampa school, Michael Wayne Lewis, was sent to federal prison on unrelated charges. He's now in a halfway house and due to be released in June. In 2004, Lewis, a bishop at Harvest Fellowship Bible Church, and two aides were indicted by federal prosecutors on charges that they defrauded banks out of nearly $2-million.

Over the years, there have been several arrests connected to the fraudulent use of McKay Scholarship money for disabled children, and the Corporate Tax Credit scholarship program for poor children.

Changes made in 2006 by the Florida Legislature to improve fiscal and academic accountability have been effective and "significantly reduced the opportunities to exploit public funds," Jordan said.

Dennard, the St. Petersburg principal, was arrested on charges that she stole more than $250,000 from the school voucher programs.

The Financial Services Department has launched another investigation into Dennard, this time in connection with thousands of dollars in grants she received from the Florida and Pinellas County health departments. Like the investigation into the scholarship program, the probe into the health grants was prompted by a citizen complaint, Jordan said.

Also pending is an internal audit into how grants were handled at the Pinellas Health Department.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or 727 892-2283.