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Marva Dennard, a St. Petersburg educator who offered free scholarships to private schools, pleads guilty to charges she stole from state programs

St. Petersburg educator and activist Marva Dennard has pleaded guilty to charges that she stole more than $150,000 from state scholarship programs intended to help low-income and disabled students.

Under the plea deal, Dennard faces a maximum of 69 months in prison. She has agreed to restitution in the amount of $200,000. Sentencing will take place on Aug. 10.

Assistant state attorney Rene Bauer said Dennard, 69, asked the court to delay sentencing so she could present character witnesses and mitigating evidence.

Dennard's trial for grand theft and aggravated white-collar crime was supposed to start today. She faced up to 30 years on each first-degree felony, Bauer said.

Dennard, who was arrested in late 2007 and has had several pretrial hearings, said she wanted to end her ordeal.

"This has been wearing on me like you wouldn't believe,'' she said by telephone from her St. Petersburg home.

The Florida Department of Financial Services accused Dennard of taking funds from the John M. McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities program and the Corporate Tax Credit scholarship program. It said she pursued low-income minority students who qualified for McKay and CTC scholarships by offering "free scholarships." From July 2002 through June 2005, her school received $782,896.75 in McKay funds and $225,904 in CTC funds.

Dennard, who operated Bishop Academy II, was accused of inflating student numbers, submitting scholarship applications that falsely indicated tuition at $3,500 or $7,500 when the actual tuition was $2,600, and of simultaneously collecting funds for students receiving both McKay and CTC scholarships. She was also accused of failing to provide the professional services prescribed by and paid for by the Department of Education.

The school started with 75 students and grew to 155 students, the state Department of Education said.

Dennard, who ran for St. Petersburg City Council in 1999, blamed her troubles on her lack of sophistication and knowledge of private school administration. "I absolutely did not steal this money,'' she said Monday.

She became chief executive and director of Bishop Academy II in 2002, after it got into trouble under previous owners. For a year, the school shared space with Bethel Community Christian School, but moved to a closed church property in the Childs Park neighborhood. Dennard said she closed the school in 2005 because of financial difficulties, but that most of the 300 children she educated went on to do well.

Father Hayden Crawford of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in St. Pete Beach said his son attended Dennard's school when it was on Bethel Community Christian School property.

"It was a great place for my son to go. He moved forward in his decorum and his study habits as well,'' Crawford said, adding that his son is now in college.

Crawford said he is willing to be a character witness for Dennard. The Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church said he'd do the same.

"We didn't have any kind of financial problems when we worked together,'' he said.

Dennard showed no sign that she had extra money, he added. "It's not like she went out and bought a Bentley.''

Dennard said she is prepared to make restitution, but has no job and doesn't know where the money will come from. "Whatever happens, it's in God's hands,'' she said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727)892-2283.

Marva Dennard, a St. Petersburg educator who offered free scholarships to private schools, pleads guilty to charges she stole from state programs 06/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 11:14am]

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