LARGO — St. Petersburg educator and activist Marva Dennard was sentenced Monday to 69 months in prison, the maximum under her plea agreement, for stealing more than $150,000 from state scholarship programs. She also was ordered to pay $200,000 in restitution.
Dennard, 69, was 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. Charged with grand theft and aggravated white-collar crime, she could have received up to 30 years on each first-degree felony.
"You entered into a scheme and took a ton of public money,'' Judge R. Timothy Peters told Dennard.
Peters noted that many Dennard supporters had asked for leniency on her behalf, but none had "any direct knowledge" of what had happened at her school. Dennard had misrepresented that she was providing professional services to the students, Peters said. Additionally, he said, her school lacked books, teachers and decent classrooms. Though Dennard pleaded guilty, Peters said, she had shown no remorse. "You accepted responsibility for nothing," he said.
As it became clear Peters would sentence Dennard to prison, several family members ran crying from the courtroom. Dennard seemed on the verge of collapse after hearing her sentence. A bailiff gave her a chair.
Dennard, who operated Bishop Academy II, was accused of inflating student numbers and submitting scholarship applications that indicated tuition was $3,500 or $7,500. The actual tuition was $2,600. She also was accused of receiving money for students who were no longer at the school or had never attended, and of failing to provide the specialized professional services prescribed by and paid for by the Department of Education.
Theodore R. Dudley Jr., a supervisor with the Florida Department of Financial Services, testified that more than $243,000 from the school's account had gone to Dennard and members of her family. Some money was used to pay personal utility, electric and cable bills and property taxes, he said.
Assistant state attorney Rene Bauer said the total amount of Dennard's theft was more than $340,000.
Assistant public defender Yelena Zarwell asked Peters not to sentence her "elderly defendant" to prison. Dennard, she said, was a tireless advocate for the community and had been principal, administrator, taxi driver and cook for her students. "The children and the community benefited from this school," she said.
Dennard became chief executive and director of Bishop Academy II in 2002 after it got into trouble under previous owners. The school closed in 2005.
The Florida Department of Financial Services says it also is investigating Dennard in connection with grants she received from the Florida Department of Health and the Pinellas County Health Department to help provide dental screening and health education in Pinellas County.