BRADENTON -- The warning signs didn't come right away for Theresa Kern after she became principal for The Prep Academy in June. People had warned her about school owner Hendrik Lamprecht, the troubled financial history of schools he has owned and reports of teachers not getting paid. Throughout the summer, he had been paying Kern, and she was excited to turn the school's reputation around.
But Kern started running into stumbling blocks.
The former Chicago educator had never handled cash at her teaching jobs before, but now she sometimes was required to count thousands of dollars in tuition and fees for the private school on Cortez Road before it was deposited.
Kern, a brain tumor survivor, says she was promised a health-care package, but had yet to receive one, months after becoming employed.
She often found herself making copies of pages for teachers because there were no books in their classrooms.
And in September, Kern says, she and other teachers weren't paid their monthly salaries.
"My biggest mistake was not re
searching who this man was," Kern said. "I had no autonomy. I started realizing I wasn't getting paid. They were asking me to handle all the money and pass it on. Who knows where it was going?"
For the second time in only two years, teachers at a Manatee school run by Lamprecht say they are not getting paid. The Prep Academy has employed about a dozen teachers with an enrollment of about 50 students.
Lamprecht has operated four Manatee schools under different names since 2010. The first three were shut them down due to foreclosure, lack of funds or other controversy, and the status of The Prep Academy was unclear Tuesday.
Teachers also have reported that Lamprecht owes thousands of dollars in back rent to property owners John and Vasilki Rekkas, and faces eviction. But when called this week, Vasilki Rekkas said the couple "did not want to speak about it."
Calls to Lamprecht on Tuesday were not returned.
Lamprecht's track record
Lamprecht is being sued by at least five different parties, including 12 former teachers who say he owes them more than $200,000 in unpaid salary for their time at The Bradenton Prep, the first school he operated in the county.
The Bradenton Preparatory Academy owed more than $900,000 in tax liens in 2010 when Lamprecht bought a stake in its company, The Children's Place Inc., and took over as president from longtime owner Lois Gerber. Shortly after, teachers said they were receiving paychecks only sporadically and were owed thousands in back pay.
The school lost its west Bradenton campus to foreclosure, but re-opened as The Prep Learning Academy in a leased building on Cortez Road.
In June 2011, the school reopened as New Path Academy. A month later, it was renamed The Prep Academy at the same location on Cortez Road.
When Lamprecht opened The Prep Academy in July 2011, he had already applied and been approved to receive McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, which puts taxpayers' dollars into a system that is barely monitored by the state and controlled almost entirely by the school.
Despite a noncompliance letter issued earlier when Lamprecht switched the school's locations without notifying the state, records show that the state recognized The Prep Academy as a McKay school in both 2011 and 2012.
Just last year, 24,000 students throughout Florida participated in the McKay program, which gave $152 million in scholarships, based on the costs of the accommodations these students would require in a public school, to apply toward an education at a private school.
Some teachers quit
On Oct. 8, Kern says she quit her job as principal and left the school because she hadn't been paid. Other teachers held out for a paycheck that Lamprecht said would soon be coming.
Since early October, Kern says two more teachers have left positions at The Prep Academy because they have not been paid. Teachers apparently were paid for the month of October, but still have not received September's paycheck.
On Oct. 9, Lamprecht told the Herald that five of about 34 staff members had been affected by a "glitch with a transfer" and had not received a Sept. 30 paycheck. Teachers at the prep school are paid on a monthly basis.
He said the teachers were supposed to receive paychecks Oct. 10 and that Kern had been aware of that. He focused on the fact that Kern had not formally resigned from her position.
"Up until this very moment, she has not announced a resignation," Lamprecht said. "Not verbally. Not in writing. That is very, very, very clear."
Eve Cameron, a K-2 teacher who left The Prep Academy in October, also said Lamprecht's promise of a paycheck never happened for most teachers.
"All we ever heard was 'The money didn't drop. The money didn't drop,'" Cameron told the Herald.
Teachers also were warned about potential layoffs, Cameron said. There weren't enough students to employ the teachers, school officials said to employees.
On Oct. 8, Cameron said, she was called into a private meeting with Lamprecht who asked her to be patient with the school's financial struggles and that he would pay only her in the next two days.
Cameron outlines other promises he made to employees in her letter of resignation:
"On Tuesday October 9th you held a staff meeting promising every employee would be paid the following day. On Wednesday, October 10th, once again we received no communication and no paychecks. We were all told "he hasn't shown up," her letter states.
Cameron says she was wired her September salary Oct. 11, the last day she worked at The Prep Academy.
But her monthly check was only about $2,400, or $1,000 short, she contends. She said Lamprecht told her she was actually on a 12-month contract, not a nine-month as she had thought, and that taxes accounted for the missing funds.
"That's when I knew I had to get out of here," Cameron said.
Cameron says she found a job at the Manatee Learning Academy after Kern wrote her a recommendation. She's never been paid for days in October.
"I have books. It's structured. I get paid," Cameron said Tuesday.
McKay scholarships used
Laurie Russett says she discovered The Prep Academy by chance -- when an emergency vehicle forced her to turn on Cortez Road just past the school's 75th Street intersection.
Russett felt desperate last spring when she scheduled an interview with the school. She'd spent two exhausting years commuting to a job in south Sarasota so that her son could attend a private school. But now the single mom felt it was time to find a school closer to home that could still give extra support to her son Dylan, who has a severe developmental disability.
School officials at The Prep Academy said all the right things. They had small classrooms and went up to 12th grade, so Dylan wouldn't have to keep changing schools. They provided for several children with special needs -- Dylan could have an aide or specific computer program if needed, she was told.
And they would accept a McKay scholarship of $14,000 on behalf of the Department of Education for Dylan's tuition and accommodations.
Like many parents of special needs children in the state of Florida, Russett chose to take advantage of a state program that gives vouchers for special needs children to attend private schools.
Bradenton parent Jill Christman also was attracted to The Prep Academy because it seemed a great environment for her autistic son, Jonathan.
Jonathan had an $11,000 McKay scholarship that she and her husband chose to direct to The Prep Academy. The money would be endorsed to the school in four quarterly checks.
Both Russett and Christman paid a $250 book fee upon entering the school, but their children never brought home textbooks and said they didn't use books in the classroom.
Russett spoke to school officials about bringing an aide into the classroom for Dylan during her interview of the school, but Russett was told that her McKay money had been spent for the quarter.
School officials cited a $500 registration fee, the $250 book fee, tuition and salary for a teacher that sometimes helped out in the classroom as expenses.
"I was sitting in a meeting basically being told that it was apparent that this teacher could not teach my son and that it was a good idea to have someone come in," Russett said. "But that my McKay money was gone."
Lamprecht is not required by law to provide any of the accommodations he supposedly promised Russett and Christman when they enrolled their children at The Prep Academy.
He doesn't have to certify his teachers to teach students with special needs. No entity, including a parent, can tell him how to use the McKay money he receives for accepting McKay scholars.
To make The Prep Academy eligible to receive McKay money, he had to do things like establish a physical location, promise to perform background checks on teachers and submit a $15,000 bond because his school has not existed for three years. Other standards were sent to the state in a self-reported compliance form.
State statutes lack any description of oversight on how a school spends its McKay money. Parents have little say in what happens after they decide to endorse a check to a particular private school, outside of choosing to attend a different school.
That's a consequence of choosing to attend any private school, said Jodi O'Meara, the district's McKay scholarship contact for the Department of Education.
"The private school does not have to provide the same services that a public school would," O'Meara said. "But they still get the (McKay) money."
The state does not inquire about the curriculum of private schools, either. Accreditation is the only form of oversight for private schools in the state of Florida, and Lamprecht's school isn't accredited.
Up until Oct. 9, The Prep Academy website stated that the school was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Council for International and Trans-Regional Accreditation.
SACS representative Jennifer Oliver confirmed on that date that The Prep Academy was not accredited with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The Council for International and Trans-Regional Accreditation hasn't existed since 2008 when it merged with her organization, she said.
"They have been asked to take it down several times." Oliver said. "That information is not correct."
When Lamprecht was asked last month why the accreditations were still on the website, Lamprecht said he was not aware it was posted. It was removed the next day.
Some students pulled
Christman and Russett pulled their sons out of The Prep Academy at the beginning of October. Russett asked to take her son's workbooks with her. There were none to take, school officials told her.
If they had waited any longer, the school would have been able to keep their McKay money for the second quarter.
A student only needs to spend 10 days in a quarter before a school is eligible to keep that McKay sum, even if that student transfers. By law, the Prep Academy keeps that first quarter's sum.
Fewer than 10 of the school's 50 students receive McKay money at the school, said state officials. State records show that The Prep Academy has received $13,209.50 in McKay money for the 2012-13 school year so far.
As of Tuesday, teachers still haven't been paid, say Kern and Cameron.
Kern doesn't expect to ever receive her September check.She estimates she's owed close to $4,500 for the month of September and the first week in October. She has since found another job in education, and sad last week she received a paycheck for the first time since August.
"For me, this isn't about a paycheck," Kern said. "This is about me taking one for the team. This is about working conditions. This is about a man that is not in education for children."
Russett wants to know where her McKay scholarship funds went.
"This is my question," Russett said. "If the teachers didn't get paid, and there are no books, and I paid $100 simply for uniforms for that school, where did my McKay dollars go?"
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941.745.7081.