Advertisement
  1. Education

Life Force teachers, principal struggle to figure out charter school's finances

Life Force Arts and Technology Academy, 453 Broadway St. in Dunedin, now has 58 students. The Pinellas School Board has voted to issue a notice of termination of the school’s charter.
Published Apr. 6, 2012

DUNEDIN — After the Life Force Arts and Technology Academy's embattled director of operations said she was leaving for a new job, principal Lenor Johnson discovered a problem: Passwords to the charter school's bank accounts had been changed and she couldn't access them.

Johnson had asked Vikki Williams, the outgoing operations director, for help learning the books. But when they sat down together, Williams couldn't explain why the accounts and the school's QuickBooks accounting software suddenly couldn't be accessed.

"Huh. Someone changed the password," Johnson recalled Williams saying. "At that point, I knew it was a game."

That hasn't been the only surprise in the last few weeks at Life Force, a publicly funded charter elementary school that teachers say was overrun by Scientology influence.

School leaders and parents say the school's books have turned to smoke and mirrors, leaving them powerless to plan a budget or hold the school's former leaders accountable. And Life Force's bankruptcy protection likely will end this month, allowing creditors to move in and seek payment.

Hanan Islam, the school's former manager and an executive director of the Scientology-tied World Literacy Crusade, quit last month. But teachers say her appointees have retained a tight grip on the school's money and operations.

"We have people who are doing a real good job of confusing everybody," said principal Johnson, speaking to the Tampa Bay Times for the first time this week. "I really have no one to help me with this school. Everybody that could help me is working for Hanan."

The only remaining member of the school's governing board, Hanan Islam appointee Louis Muhammad, now has sole power to approve budgets for the approximately $50,000 in public funding the school receives each month.

Clearwater lawyer Steven L. Hayes, whom Muhammad asked to represent the governing board, said new members will be added to the board soon. Hayes also is looking for a new accountant to map out spending until the last day of school June 10, saying the school "will have to operate very close to the vest."

Parents and teachers are questioning some of the line items they have found in budgets created by Williams before she resigned. For example, the school has spent or plans to spend nearly $3,000 on a California accountant quietly hired by Islam. The accountant has never been seen at the school and is referred to only as "Pauline" in the budget. No one's sure if she was given access to the school's books.

Another questionable budget line item is $700 for fliers advertising Winter Wonderland, an annual Scientology-sponsored holiday event in Clearwater.

Bankruptcy records also show that Islam's management company, Art of Management, was paid more than $70,000 from school funds between August and January.

"These kids walk around here and don't have water, don't have pencils, don't have crayons," said Konica Ritchie, cafeteria manager and parent of two Life Force students. "How can you be for the kids if you took $70,000, talking about your fees?"

Another concern: Hayes said the school owes nearly $15,000 in payroll taxes. Yet taxes were routinely deducted from teachers' $85-a-day paychecks, leaving them worried that the taxes somehow disappeared.

Not much is known about how money was spent at the school under the administration of Islam and Williams. The Pinellas County School District, responsible under state law for monitoring charter schools, has not received monthly financial statements from Life Force since November, said Dot Clark, the district's coordinator of partnership schools.

The school district has little power over how money is used at the school. But last month, the School Board voted to issue a 90-day notice of termination of the school's charter, meaning it could close this summer at the end of its third school year.

Johnson, who was initially stymied by the mysterious change in account passwords, regained access by visiting the bank and credit union. Johnson said Hayes and Muhammad have agreed to give her about $500 each month for school supplies, but the board — Muhammad — will maintain total control over the other 99 percent of the school's monthly state and federal funding.

Hired by Islam in July as a "public relations consultant," Muhammad was fired three months later after pushing a boy on the school bus. Islam appointed him chairman of the board in January. Other members of the board have since resigned.

Board attorney Hayes made headlines in 1996 when he bought out the assets of the Cult Awareness Network, an anti-Scientology hotline bankrupted after a barrage of lawsuits. Hayes said he was asked to represent the board by Muhammad, whom he had "known from before," though he would not say how. He said he is not charging for his work.

Williams and Islam did not return phone and e-mail messages Thursday. Muhammad said he would not answer questions, saying, "The school is closing. Just leave it alone."

The school now has 58 students, about half of its peak enrollment. Johnson said she is trying to lighten the mood by planning student field trips. Teachers are leading clubs for art, dance, drama and gardening.

"They're my motivation — to see them coming to work every day," Johnson said. "We're not going to let this get us down."

As for Islam, emails show she continued to give orders in the weeks after her management of the school ended. Life Force teacher Lynne Kittredge said Islam recently told her of her next big venture: opening a new private school in south St. Petersburg.

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Jeff Eakins and MaryEllen Elia, Hillsborough's last two superintendents, were hired from inside the school system. So have all others since 1967. Times staff
    Go to the school district website before 8 a.m. Monday to state your case.
  2. Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, urges the Florida Board of Education to hold schools accountable for teaching the Holocaust and African-American history, as required by lawmakers in 1994. The board was considering a rule on the matter at its Sept. 20, 2019, meeting in Jacksonville. The Florida Channel
    School districts will have to report how they are providing the instruction required in Florida law.
  3. The Pasco County school district would rezone the Seven Oaks subdivision from the Wiregrass Ranch High feeder pattern to the Cypress Creek High feeder pattern, beginning in the 2020-21 school year. Pasco County school district
    The Seven Oaks subdivision is the primary target for rezoning.
  4. Fortify Florida is a new app that allows for anonymous reporting of suspected school threats. Florida Department of Education
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  5. Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning says Fortify Florida, the new state-sponsored app that allows students to report potential threats, is "disrupting the education day" because the callers are anonymous, many of the tips are vague and there's no opportunity to get more information from tipsters. "I have an obligation to provide kids with a great education," Browning said. "I cannot do it with this tool, because kids are hiding behind Fortify Florida." JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |
    Vague and anonymous tips often waste law enforcement’s time and disrupt the school day, says Kurt Browning, president of Florida’s superintendents association.
  6. Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, during a Feb. 7, 2019, meeting of the House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee. [The Florida Channel]
    ‘One test should not determine the rest of your life,’ Rep. Susan Valdes says.
  7. The Florida House Education Committee focuses on early education in its first meeting of the 2020 session. The Florida Channel
    School security and early learning get top billing in the first committee meetings of the looming 2020 session.
  8. Former Pinellas school guardian Erick Russell, 37, is accused of pawning the Glock 17 9mm semiautomatic pistol, body armor and two magazines he was issued to protect students, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. He told deputies he needed gas money. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    Those allegations came to light after his arrest on charges of domestic battery and false imprisonment. He was fired by the Pinellas County School District.
  9. This image from a Pinellas County Schools video shows an armed police officer running to respond to a fictional active shooter.
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  10. Representatives from the Pasco County school district and the United School Employees of Pasco discuss salary and benefits during negotiations on Sept. 18, 2019. JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |  Times Staff Writer
    The proposal is short on details, with officials saying they want to work through specifics during negotiations.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement