Longform

McKay scholarship program sparks a cottage industry of fraud and chaos

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The apathy to McKay fraud was politically motivated, he believes. "This program was the governor's baby, and he had a lot of political capital invested in this," the former investigator says of Bush, who held office until January 2007. "My understanding was that he viewed our investigations as negative publicity about the program."

Counters Bush's spokesperson Jaryn Emhof: "Governor Bush has consistently supported greater accountability over the scholarship programs."

Of the case reports provided to New Times, only three resulted in arrests. The vast majority of offenders were ordered to simply repay the stolen money, although many of them have failed to make payments.

In October 2007, prosecutors did decide to press charges in a case involving two sisters. Betty Mitchell and Jeannette Nealy had swindled at least $200,000 in McKay money through Faith Christian Academy in Polk County.

Stoughton helped the SAO write a news release, detailing the fraud and the sisters' potential prison time — they would later be sentenced to a combined 17 years — to send to media outlets. There's no deterrent to like-minded schemers, Stoughton believes, like a nice, scary news story.

When Stoughton shipped a draft of the release up the flagpole at the Department of Education, he says, "The response I got was essentially: This is good news how?"

Stoughton eventually left the department to go to law school. The DOE never sent out that news release.

Sheldon "Klassy" Klasfeld, beaver-toothed and round-spectacled with slicked curly locks, sits in his junk-clogged sliver of an office in the front of Academic High School. The principal and founder of the Boca Raton academy — and perennial candidate for the Florida House — is in full stall-and-divert mode, waxing at length about his hippie days in Pittsburgh, clearly reluctant to give a tour of his school, located in a nondescript strip mall.

Eventually, he exhausts his tale of hitchhiking to Woodstock and opens a door into maze-like halls of yellow wood panels, scrawled in places with black graffiti.

In two classrooms, high school kids sit in oppressive silence, plowing through workbooks. The teachers are at their own desks, saying nothing. This is not an exam day: Academic High students get credits, and eventually diplomas, by filling out answers in textbooks every day from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Lunch is not served, though kids can buy chips and soda from vending machines wedged in a corner.

The state is aware of Klasfeld's special brand of academia. In 2003, the Palm Beach County school board shuttered Academic High — which was then a charter school — for mismanaging its budget and cramming multiple classes into one room. Klasfeld appealed in person to the Florida Cabinet, where he was unanimously denied by a panel including Governor Bush and then-Education Commissioner Charlie Crist.

Within a year, Academic High re-opened as a private school and has received $138,000 in McKay cash, drawing the same milk from a different DOE teat.

Ask Klasfeld, though, and he's simply providing options to students, most of them with learning disabilities, who would never pass Florida's standardized tests required for graduation in public schools. "I used to be a big advocate against the FCAT," he remarks while sitting at a picnic table outside after the hasty tour. "Then I realized it was just bringing more kids to us."

After some consternation, Klasfeld pulls a student out of class to speak with a reporter. Seventeen-year-old Alex is pock-marked and slow-speaking. Until 2009, he attended Coral Springs' Academy High School — which received $3.7 million in McKay funds — before administrators there were caught forging parents' signatures, among other ploys, to continue receiving money after the disabled students were no longer enrolled.

Alex says it's not entirely just book work at his new alma mater. "We do reports too," he says. "About presidents, about Osama, stuff like that."

Klasfeld sits across the picnic table from Alex and often interjects nervously. Alex says he wants to enlist in the Army after he gets his diploma. "Ten-hut!" the principal hollers nonsensically. "Sir, yes, sir!"

As the program director of a Fort Lauderdale tutoring and after-school nonprofit called HANDY — Helping Abused, Neglected, Disadvantaged Youth — dealing mostly with poor and African-American children, Kirk Brown is depressingly familiar with the scourge of two-bit McKay schools "preying" on South Florida's inner cities.

Twenty-eight percent of the scholarship fund's students are African-American, and 45 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Ghettos tend to attract the huckster portion of the McKay schools. In neighborhoods such as Liberty City and Sistrunk, it seems, you can't swing an FCAT without hitting a dubious educator setting up a fly-by-night school designed to lure kids who might otherwise struggle with standardized testing.

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Gus Garcia-Roberts