Marva Dennard, the St. Petersburg educator and activist who pleaded guilty to charges that she stole more than $150,000 from state scholarship programs, got a temporary reprieve Monday when her protracted sentencing hearing was forced to be continued in two weeks.
Dozens of supporters turned out for the hearing, including a bus load from her church and a half-dozen of St. Petersburg's African-American preachers. Dennard, 69, walked into the packed courtroom half an hour before the hearing, resplendent in white pants, a lacy white top, white hat and red manicured nails. She waved, smiled and chatted with those in the room. "I love you, too,'' she responded to a well wisher.
Dennard, who was arrested in late 2007, is accused of stealing from the John M. McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities program and the Corporate Tax Credit scholarship program for children from low income families. Under her plea deal, she faces a maximum of 69 months in prison. She has agreed to restitution in the amount of $200,000.
Charged with grand theft and aggravated white collar crime, Dennard had faced up to 30 years on each first-degree felony.
Monday, assistant public defender Yelena Zarwell presented nearly a dozen witnesses who praised Dennard for her commitment to the community, particularly the education of African-American children. Some testified that Dennard had often used her own money and personal transportation to run the school; and that she cared for children in her home while their parents were jailed.
"We live in a community where our kids are overmedicated, undereducated and less tolerated,'' the Rev. Louis Murphy of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church said. "We need Ms. Dennard.''
Assistant state attorney Rene Bauer presented a different side of Dennard and her now-closed Bishop Academy II private school. Witnesses testified that the Pinellas School District pulled its Title I teacher out of the school and that the Pinellas Sheriff's Office discontinued its crime prevention program because of serious inadequacies at Bishop Academy.
Bauer questioned Dennard about her payment of her home's property taxes and utility and cable bills with Bishop Academy checks. She also asked about the satisfaction of a $77,346 federal tax lien in January 2007.
The hearing will continue Aug. 31.
Dennard could face other problems. The Florida Department of Financial Services has an open investigation on her, spokeswoman Jayme O'Rourke said.
It is investigating the former City Council candidate in connection with grants she received from the Florida Department of Health and the Pinellas County Health Department. O'Rourke said the department's office of fiscal integrity is looking into grants Dennard received to help provide dental screening and health education in Pinellas County.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727)892-2283.