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Charters hurt by one school's poor choices



Deerwood Academy founder Henry Johnson last week characterized a ruling from Circuit Judge Stanley Mills as "a horrible precedent for charter schools.'' He is right about charters operating under an unfortunate precedent, but, as usual, Johnson is wrong about who is responsible.

Johnson continues to point fingers of blame everywhere but at himself. His own incompetence in allowing a con man to fleece Deerwood's coffers helped turn a collaborative effort between the district and the privately run, publicly financed school into a sometimes adversarial relationship that only now is easing — five years after Deerwood shut its doors.

If today's charter school administrators find the Pasco School District's rules and financial safeguards overbearing, they can thank Johnson and the felon he put in charge of Deerwood's day-to-day operations, Jeffrey Alcantara.

A 2005 plea bargain sent Alcantara to prison on a racketeering charge for embezzling tens of thousands of dollars of public money during Deerwood's two-year existence. The district had to ensure there would be no repeat and its protections — including requiring charters to spend money first and be reimbursed, with appropriate documentation, afterward — continued until a recent task force agreed the rules could be too restrictive for charters operating on thin margins.

In the meantime, Johnson, under the guise of the Deerwood Educational Foundation Inc., sued the district, alleging it violated its contract with the school and owed it $138,000 in an improperly withheld federal grant. The district countersued, saying it double-paid to educate Deerwood students by placing them elsewhere when the charter closed in 2003. During a non-jury trial in April, Johnson maintained school district administrators, not Alcantara, were to blame for the school's demise.

Nobody swallowed that line, including Johnson's own lawyer. Deerwood dropped much of its claim after the trial, conceding the disputed grant was intended for the approaching school year and could not have been used to cover the expenses of the previous year.

Last week, Mills cemented Deerwood's legacy. He ruled in the district's favor, saying the school foundation owed the district nearly $94,000, plus 11 percent interest since 2003 and still-to-be-determined court costs and legal fees.

The chances of collection seem remote, but the court ruling confirms Deerwood as the poster child for how not to run a charter school in Pasco County.

Charters hurt by one school's poor choices 06/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 5:30pm]
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