The Freedom From Religion Foundation wants the Florida Department of Education to suspend scholarship payments to LifeSkills Academy II, a Christian school in Daytona Beach that receives public funding.
The request stems from information FFRF received through Wisconsin open records requests regarding a similar school in Milwaukee that Taron and Rodney Monroe operated and which suddenly closed in December. The Monroes, husband and wife, also operate the Daytona school.
FFRF is a national state-church watchdog that has about 20,000 U.S. members and more than 900 Florida members, along with a local chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott's Jan. 30 letter to Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart asks for an investigation, noting that on Jan. 21, 11 state Assembly members introduced AR 23, which would call upon the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to inform “the relevant state agency in the state of Florida” about the abrupt closure of LifeSkills Academy. A Catholic priest in charge of the building rented by the voucher school said that the operators moved out “in the dead of the night.”
"While that resolution has not yet passed and may not pass, you should be aware of the troubling history of the operators of LifeSkills Academy," Elliott wrote to Stewart. "We want you to be aware of information that just came to light in the course of an FFRF request for open records concerning the Milwaukee school. LifeSkills Academy was removed from the National School Lunch Program in 2012 after the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) investigated the school’s mismanagement of school lunches.
"The investigation into the lunch program began with appalling and shocking allegations in a June 28, 2011, letter from DPI that stated that it had received reports that noncompliant meals were served. Those allegations included such claims as falsification of applications, serving food from pantries that was expired, serving Ramen noodles with hot sauce and a cup of water for lunch, whole milk being 'cut' with water, serving Kool-Aid in place of juice and 'repeated issues with bats.' "
In the face of questions in March 2012 about mismanagement, LifeSkills withdrew from the lunch program. News reports and public records have also documented allegations that the Monroes falsified documents:
• The DPI investigation stated that LifeSkills provided “falsified documentation" of actual meals served.
• A Dec. 17, 2013, letter from DPI stated that Taron Monroe admitted to falsely sending communications to DPI under the name of the school’s administrator.
• On Jan. 15, 2014, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Pastor Bill Vigue, of Palm Coast, Fla., said he never agreed to be on the board for LifeSkills Academy II. Yet, Vigue is listed as an officer of LifeSkills Academy II Inc. in corporation filings with the state of Florida.
• An emailed report to DPI in June of 2011, from a person claiming to be a former school employee, charged that the Monroes falsified records and sought to use the employee’s identity. The former employee also alleged that convicted felons were volunteering in the school and that the Monroes falsified school attendance records. (It is not known whether any of those allegations were substantiated by DPI. These emails were obtained through a public records request.)
Students at LifeSkills Academy struggled with basic reading and math, with only one of the 56 students testing proficient in either subject on 2012 state exams. Despite their poor operation of the Milwaukee school, Taron and Rodney Monroe opened LifeSkills Academy II and touted their ability to get government grants for religious schools.
"We urge you to immediately begin an investigation into whether LifeSkills Academy II is compliant with McKay and Florida Tax Credit scholarship program requirements," Elliott wrote.
"Due to the egregious record of LifeSkills Academy in Milwaukee, and serious concerns for the welfare of young students and the public in Florida, payments to LifeSkills Academy II should cease immediately."