Vincero Academy staff waits on pay, keeps teaching special-needs students

PALM HARBOR — Not the teachers. Not the principal. Not even the bus driver.

No one at Vincero Academy, a private special-needs school, has been paid in five weeks. Teachers missed bills for car payments, student loans, their children's tuition. Some face losing their homes.

The school was started by Frank and Anne Mongelluzzi, the Dunedin founders of Able Body Labor. Their adopted son, Anthony, was one of the first to enroll.

But the school has fallen victim to the couple's crumbling financial empire, wracked with $60 million in debt and millions more in unpaid taxes. A bankruptcy trustee, overwhelmed by the couple's assets, has yet to release money the school desperately needs.

Though unpaid, the teachers refuse to stop. Their 40 students, elementary through high school, still attend classes on social studies and life skills. Planning is still under way for the school's first graduation. Even the senior trip to Disney World was a success.

Yet the students have begun to ask questions. What will happen to our school?

"My planning period was spent bawling at my desk," said math teacher Amanda Willhite. "I have another job opportunity, but I can't bring myself to leave, for the kids. What if they show up and there's nobody here?"

The school's crippled finances have forced principal Richard Wolfe to cut Friday classes and end the school year early. He is looking for a new campus — the current building, at 30750 U.S. 19, is in foreclosure — and investors or donors to keep the school afloat.

Parents have donated money, doughnuts, gas and phone cards to support the teachers. An anonymous benefactor donated tens of thousands of dollars, enough to catch up on faculty pay, said Steve Berman, the attorney for bankruptcy trustee Angela Esposito.

But a significant portion of those gifts remain tied to the Mongelluzzis' frozen account. Berman said that money would be released within days. Another Mongelluzzi business, Italian restaurant Pssghetti's on U.S. 19 in Clearwater, reopened Wednesday night with back pay for all staff.

"All of the Mongelluzzis' businesses were cash-starved when (Esposito) took over," Berman said. "She's been fighting fires since the bankruptcy."

Funding for the school has come mostly from $200,000 in Florida's McKay disabilities scholarships, state records show. Private tuition and donations were supposed to cover the rest.

But in the months before the Mongelluzzis' collapse, English teacher Erin Treece saw strange things happen with the faculty's pay. Checks were handed out late, or with notes saying not to cash them until the next day. Frank Mongelluzzi came to the school once to plead for teachers to stay without pay, to "do it for the kids," Treece recalled.

Treece has had to borrow from family and beg insurance and loan companies for help. Though she said she still loves the school, she will leave soon for another job with Mavericks High School in Largo.

"There's being understanding, and there's letting yourself be taken advantage of," she said.

Last week, after the St. Petersburg Times reported on the bankruptcy, Wolfe wrote to parents that he wanted to "address matters head on," and that he expected the school would be fine. "We do not intend to allow Vincero to be caught up" in what he called "financial setbacks."

Five days later, he wrote back with "devastating news": the semester would end 10 days early, at the end of May.

That frustrated parents like Tracey Short, who said she was "blindsided" by the news. Her ninth-grade daughter, Samantha, who has developmental disabilities due to epilepsy, has attended Vincero since it opened in 2009.

"Even if Vincero said they were going to reopen in the fall, I'm not going to send them to this school," Short said. "They've been so dishonest about what's going on."

At the center of the school's dilemma are the students, who Treece said were "very frightened" they would lose their friends and favorite teachers. Much of her recent life-skills lessons for students have focused on how to deal with the school's grim future: controlling their fears, teaching them about money, reassuring them.

Willhite said the students are all "totally aware" of the chaos. One student told another to give her some slack because she wasn't getting paid.

"I told them this whole thing was a lesson in humanity," Willhite said. "This was a whole extra course they didn't know about."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Vincero Academy staff waits on pay, keeps teaching special-needs students 04/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 1:38pm]

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