Private schools used vouchers for special-needs children who were not enrolled, judge says

TALLAHASSEE — Two private schools in Florida City should be barred from participating in the state school voucher programs, an administrative law judge said Monday.

The recommendation came after state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart dinged Barrington Academy and Barrington Academy II for accepting state scholarships for two students who did not attend the schools. The two schools are related.

Barrington employees are accused of endorsing checks made out to the students' parents and depositing them into the schools' accounts, court records show.

Gwendolyn Thomas, who is principal of both schools, told the judge that the employees responsible for the misconduct were no longer working there.

Barrington attorney Marc Douthit said the money had been returned to the state. He declined further comment.

Judge Claude B. Aarington did not punish the schools indefinitely. In his recommendation, he said the schools should be allowed to reapply to the scholarship programs after the Department of Education had been fully reimbursed.

Both schools should also "demonstrate that they have personnel and written procedures that will ensure compliance with all applicable rules and statutory provisions," Aarington said.

The Education Department will have the final say on what action is taken.

Florida has two school voucher programs. The John M. McKay Scholarship program provides private school scholarships to children with special needs. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program serves children from low-income families.

Earlier this month, the Florida Legislature passed a bill seeking to expand the tax credit scholarship program. The proposal also creates new accountability provisions for participating schools, as well as the nonprofit organization that oversees the program.

Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the measure (SB 850) in the coming weeks.

The Barrington Academy schools enroll more than 300 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, according to its website.

Both were eligible to receive students on McKay and tax credit scholarships.

One student who received a McKay scholarship withdrew from Barrington in June 2011. But school officials deposited about $12,230 in checks issued to the student's mother between August 2011 and August 2013, according the records.

The checks had been fraudulently deposited, according to the Education Department.

Barrington submitted paperwork to the state verifying that the student had been in attendance when the checks were deposited, records show.

Stewart, the state education commissioner, suspended Barrington from participating in the voucher programs in October. But after the suspension, many of the scholarship students were transferred to Barrington II, court records show.

Barrington II, meanwhile, deposited about $8,316 in checks issued to the mother of a different student from September 2013 to January 2014.

It later came to light that the child had been enrolled in a Department of Juvenile Justice residential program during that time.

The commissioner "had probable cause to believe that Barrington II had engaged in fraudulent conduct," Aarington said. She requested a formal administrative hearing this spring.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

Private schools used vouchers for special-needs children who were not enrolled, judge says 05/19/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2014 7:36pm]

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