ZEPHYRHILLS, Florida -- The allegations don't just include abuse of taxpayer funds, but also of children with disabilities. And there's practically no system in place with the state to stop it.
The 10 News Investigators received numerous complaints about how Zephyrhills Christian Academy neglected its McKay Scholarship students, who all have diagnosed learning disabilities. The Investigators also found that the Department of Education had little contact with the school over how it spent its $135,339 in tax dollars this year.
Tens of thousands of Florida schoolchildren receive McKay scholarships, designed to give students with learning disabilities an opportunity to apply their public school funds to a private school education. The idea is to give parents a choice and students more personalized attention.
"I feel like they're stealing (children's) education," Shannon Heilman, a mother of two Zephyrhills Christian Academy (ZCA) students, said of the school.
"You put your child's education in their hands," said another student's mother who asked the 10 News Investigators to protect their identities at her son's request. "To find out...the (kids are) not getting that help (and) you're getting lied to...is devastating."
The parents, who both pulled the children out of the Christian private school and left the Fair Haven Baptist Church, said they discovered egregious abuses in the education there, which included:
- Kids were allowed to play Nintendo Wii during class, but the school had no computers for the students.
- Parents were told the 7th and 8th grade teacher was principal/administrator Pastor Mike Smith, who was seldom involved in instruction.
- Smith, who also coached the school's football team, often pulled players out of class for no reason.
- Smith would routinely use profanity in front of students; a faculty member disclosed a student's history of sexual abuse to classmates.
- Students with learning disabilities were not given extra attention, but their tests and report cards were often doctored to give their parents the illusion of success.
One of the parents produced two different report cards she found for her learning-disabled son for the same academic period. One document indicated poor progress; the other indicated significant progress; the latter document had signs of tampering.
The mother also found out her 8th-grade son was being given 6th-grade standardized tests so he could achieve "average" and "above-average" progress.
"(It's hard) knowing the road my child has ahead of him and realizing the wasted years behind him," the mother said.
The boy told 10 News that he had never taken tests his report card said he aced. He also said Pastor Smith was more interested in "goofing around" with his football players than teaching them.
ZCA costs most parents approximately $5,000 per year to attend. But an increasing number of the school's student base now collects McKay Scholarships, funded by the state. While approximately 14% of Florida school children have diagnosed learning disabilities, 28% of ZCA's student body collect McKay Scholarships.
For the 2009-10 school year, ZCA collected $146,361 in McKay Scholarships. For 2010-11, it collected $142,504.
"You might as well be throwing your money in the trash," said Heilman. "They're giving Christ a black eye."
The parents also produced documentation of ZCA overbilling the state for services provided - some of which weren't provided at all. Neither Smith nor school administrators would address the concerns raised.
While Florida dished out $112.6 million last year in McKay Scholarships, there's little oversight over how those funds are spent by private schools.
"There is not the same level of accountability across-the-board with taxpayer dollars that there should be," said State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who added that private and charter schools should have the same level of intense oversight that public schools submit to.
"McKay (scholars) in particular are supposed to be some of our most vulnerable kids. So if anything, we should be erring on the side of caution...and really making sure these dollars are being spent well," Kriseman continued. "We're not doing that at all."
Last year, reports surfaced of widespread abuse of the McKay system in South Florida. Kriseman has since pushed for reform in Tallahassee, but has made little to no ground. Last fall, Governor Rick Scott helped expand the McKay Scholarship program.
Of the 1,070 private schools receiving McKay funds last year, less than 0.5% was inspected by the state. Private schools only have to disclose how they're spending the public funds if they are among one of three random audits a year or if a legally-sufficient complaint is filed.
Upset parents at ZCA have recently filed a comprehensive complaint, hoping the Department of Education investigates. The DOE tells 10 News that it has requested additional information from ZCA to determine if an investigation is warranted.
The day the 10 News Investigators called Pastor Smith to ask about the alleged doctored documents of a since-transferred student, Smith's wife, an administrator at ZCA, reportedly went to that student's new school to retrieve the questionable documents.
Even though the documents were transferred with the student, the boy's mother said Dionna Smith expressed an urgent need to retrieve them for the school's records.
Mike Smith said he would not discuss the allegations with 10 News without permission from the student's parents. After permission slips were obtained, he decided he wouldn't discuss them anyway.
Instead, attorneys for ZCA provided a statement on behalf of their client:
Zephyrhills Christian Academy has served its students and community for thirteen years, placing graduates in both public and private universities and the United States military. Using an individualized mode of instruction that is character-building and Bible-based, ZCA works to train children in every aspect of life. ZCA is annually evaluated by the School of Tomorrow as a "model" Christian School with high academic standards.
We have been made aware of an upset family whose student we had the privilege of serving for four years, without complaint until a few months ago. We are honored to have served this student who showed tremendous academic and personal improvement during his time at our school. We have chosen to not argue on air with a former student's family as that is not tasteful in our opinion, but we stand behind the documented facts of drastic improvement in this child's academic progress.
The school indicated drastic improvement on the boy's standardized test showed improvement, but the test scores, obtained by the 10 News Investigators, showed little or no improvement compared to his peers nationwide. He was also given the 6th-grade test when he should have been given the 8th-grade test, according to local educators who spoke to 10 News on background.
Since issuing the statement, ZCA and its attorneys have updated the school website to include a legally-mandated form for parents to report professional's misconduct. Previously, the school was not in compliance with state law.
Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.