ZEPHYRHILLS — Sherri Phillips wants her $1,000 back.
That's how much she paid to get her daughter, Candice, a CHS Inc. High School diploma that turned out to be worthless.
Phillips learned of the document's value when Candice unsuccessfully tried to enroll in a culinary arts program at the Art Institute of Tampa. Program officials told her she needed to provide proof of graduation from a "legitimate" school.
"I told my daughter I would help her pay for her GED," Phillips said Wednesday. "If I can't get the money back, I can't afford to pay for her GED. … And to be honest, I don't even know if she could pass. If I had known Miss Nina was a fake, I would have made my daughter go back to school."
She was referring to Nina G.S. Duffield, whose name appears as principal on a diploma that the Pasco County school district has turned over to the Sheriff's Office with questions of whether it is fraudulent. The diploma included unauthorized copied signatures of superintendent Kurt Browning and former School Board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong, and also claimed to be an official district School Board document.
Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Melanie Snow said Wednesday the case remains open in the economic crimes unit.
Duffield could not be reached for comment. State records indicate that her homeschooling operation, Country Home School Inc., has not been active since 2006. It is not a district public school.
Phillips said she was aware that Duffield was not affiliated with the school district. But she needed an alternative schooling environment for her daughter, who had fallen a year behind at Zephyrhills High School, and said she received only positive references about the program.
"I paid her $1,000 to make sure my daughter was able to graduate, so she could go to college," Phillips said.
She quickly grew concerned as she saw the girl attending classes just six hours a week, rather than the six hours of daily instruction at Zephyrhills High. Phillips also said she had trouble getting in touch with Duffield for information about Candice's progress.
So when she learned that Candice had suddenly qualified for her diploma, almost a year early and with no proof of a needed test result provided, Phillips had her doubts. But she remained hopeful that the diploma would open doors for her daughter.
It didn't happen.
And they're not alone.
Chris Jones said his daughter, Kaylee, had the same fate. The family paid more than $600 to Duffield for schooling and a diploma after his daughter struggled at Zephyrhills High.
It was supposed to be a year of coursework, but after three months, "she gave me my diploma … which I thought was kind of weird," Kaylee said.
Then she was turned away from a cosmetology school and told her CHS Inc. diploma was no good.
"I was in tears for days when it happened. She pretty much ruined my going to college," Kaylee said.
She has passed one section of the GED, Chris Jones said, and is preparing to take the others.
Her father leveled strong criticism at Duffield, who he said never responded to his calls seeking information and an explanation.
"She is taking money from these kids and crushing their dreams," he said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.