NEW PORT RICHEY — Hank Johnson established Deerwood Academy in 2001. The charter school was the culmination of his dream as an educator.
Then came the nightmare.
The privately run, publicly funded school closed its doors in 2003, leaving behind a trail of fiscal mismanagement and missing money. Career criminal Jeffrey Ryan Alcantara went back to prison for scamming the Port Richey school. Taxpayers were out $115,000.
The money was meant for classrooms, computers and students. Alcantara spent it on jewelry, clothes and strippers.
"Did this ruin Deerwood Academy?" asked School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso.
"Absolutely not," Johnson said.
Who did Johnson blame for ruining his dream?
The Pasco County School District.
The long-awaited civil trial began Monday in front of Circuit Judge Stanley Mills. There is no jury. Mills himself will decide the outcome.
The Deerwood Educational Foundation Inc. — Johnson is the lone officer, according to state records — sued the Pasco County School Board for breach of contract in 2005. The foundation accused the district of crippling the school by withholding badly needed federal grant money. It still has creditors to pay, and it wants the school district to pay damages and costs.
The district countersued to recover the tens of thousands of dollars it lost when Deerwood collapsed.
Testimony in the case is expected to wrap up today.
Technically the lawsuit is about arcane contractual matters.
But what they're really asking the judge to decide is: Who killed Deerwood Academy?
How trouble started
Johnson said he's spent 35 years in the classroom. This is why he founded Deerwood:
"My vision of a charter school is very simple," he said. "In the public school system we have programs for gifted students and students with special needs.
"But we have no program for the 98 percent of really hardworking, wonderful students we have in our public school system."
Johnson testified Monday that his school ran into trouble when the school district changed the rules for how Deerwood would get its money.
Instead of paying the school when it needed to pay its bills, the district instead wanted to reimburse the school — a school under increasing scrutiny for financial irregularities.
"We would have to spend the money and invoice the county for any other money we spent," Johnson said, "which to me was ludicrous because we had no money to spend. That's the whole reason why we got the grant."
Alcantara's son went to the school. Then his daughter got a job as Johnson's assistant. Soon Alcantara was working at the school — and, authorities say, dipping into its accounts.
Alcantara resigned after he failed a criminal background check, Johnson said, but he maintained a cozy relationship with the school. Johnson said Deerwood even "reimbursed" Alcantara for thousands he loaned to help the charter school out.
But then in 2002, Johnson said, he caught Alcantara cashing a $20,747 check meant for school computers.
"That's when I called Jeffrey into my office," Johnson said. "I asked him, 'Where's my money?' That's when he pulled a stack of thousands out of his pocket and said, 'Here you go.' "
Johnson said he then kicked Alcantara out for good.
But Alfonso, the school district's attorney, asked: Why didn't Johnson kick him out earlier that year?
"Six months after this criminal report came back, Mr. Alcantara was able to get in your office and get his hands on a check … for more than $20,000," Alfonso said. "So what is this man doing in your office?"
Johnson explained that Alcantara's family was still part of the school.
Alcantara pleaded guilty to racketeering in 2006. Everyone else has blamed him for Deerwood's woes: the school district, auditors, the legal system.
Everyone except Johnson.
"The stolen (money) didn't ruin Deerwood," he said. "It was the (money) the school district wouldn't pay Deerwood."
In October 2002, Johnson was ousted from Deerwood's board. Soon the district took over the school. On the stand Monday, Johnson implied he left to protect the school from the School Board.
"I was made to believe that either I left or they would close the school," Johnson said.
"And you chose to leave the school," said Deerwood attorney Charles Gerdes. "Why?"
"Because that was my baby," Johnson said. "I loved that school. Everything we did, that was everything I believed in.
"That was my ministry, and I would have done anything to protect that school."