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Dueling suits over charter school start Monday

NEW PORT RICHEY — It was all over but the shouting when Deerwood Academy's board voted to shut down the troubled charter school in 2003.

There were allegations of mismanagement and tens of thousands of missing taxpayer dollars. An ex-school employee went to prison for misusing and abusing Deerwood's funds.

Not all the damage could be quantified. Students were hurt, parents angered and teachers abandoned.

The Pasco County School District blamed Deerwood founder Hank Johnson and school leaders for slipshod oversight. School supporters threw the blame for that back at the district.

That's why the shouting will start up again Monday in Circuit Judge Stanley Mills' courtroom.

That's when the Deerwood Educational Foundation Inc.'s lawsuit against the Pasco School Board — and the board's subsequent countersuit against Deerwood — will finally commence.

The nonprofit charter school foundation's five trustees, the last vestige of the failed school, sued the school district for breach of contract in 2005.

Deerwood said the School Board breached its contractual obligations in the way it disbursed federal grant money to the charter school. Instead of handing all the money over, the suit said, the district withheld the funds and distributed them piecemeal, adding to the charter school's financial woes.

"Deerwood was wronged by the way the School Board decided to change the contractual terms," said St. Petersburg lawyer Charles Gerdes, "and the board just wasn't ready to let

that go by."

The school district countersued to recover more than $80,000 in taxpayer funds that was never recouped from Deerwood's coffers.

As for Deerwood's main allegation, the district said it disbursed money according to the school's charter agreement.

"It's difficult to understand what their claim is against the district," said School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso, "because I don't believe there's been any provision of the contract that's been breached by the district."

What do both sides want? Gerdes wouldn't give a specific dollar figure. But he did say that Deerwood's board still owes tens of thousands to creditors, including a $25,000 credit line from Mercantile Bank.

The lawsuit said the district also took property such as computers and student desks that weren't publicly funded. And Gerdes said the Deerwood Foundation Inc. will seek money for damages and costs.

The School Board's countersuit seeks the tens of thousands it lost in the Deerwood debacle. So even if Deerwood prevails, the school district could also prevail and claim a share of any money it might lose.

Expect to hear the name Jeffrey Ryan Alcantara in court a lot. Johnson hired him to help set up the Port Richey school in 2001. Only Johnson didn't know Alcantara was a career criminal who went on to embezzle tens of thousands of dollars that were spent on expensive watches and strip clubs outings, among other things.

In 2006 Alcantara was sentenced to 30 months in prison for a racketeering charge. State records show he was released last month. The School Board contemplated subpoenaing him as a witness, but didn't.

Deerwood asked that the case be decided by bench trial. So there will be no jury. Judge Mills will decide the case himself.

But Mills was also the judge who sentenced Alcantara. Are Deerwood trustees worried that Mills' familiarity with Alcantara's wrongdoing will hurt their allegations of wrongdoing against the school district?

"Judge Mills is fine with us," Gerdes said. "We don't think the playing field is unlevel at all."

Asked if Deerwood's supporters want to make a larger point in court about their school's demise, Gerdes said that's not what this lawsuit is about.

But he also said this:

"I guess to a certain extent the board of Deerwood wants the public to know they weren't being lax with any money," the lawyer said, "and they were doing the right thing with the money."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Dueling suits over charter school start Monday 04/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 12:08pm]
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