HomeFlorence CountyState removes Florence private school from scholarship list amid misappropriation allegations

State removes Florence private school from scholarship list amid misappropriation allegations

Florence, South Carolina – A private school in Florence, which is under the scrutiny of allegations that its director misappropriated public funds, has been removed from the list of schools eligible for state-funded K-12 scholarships. This decision was confirmed in a letter sent to the SC Daily Gazette. The removal by the state Department of Education came on Thursday, just two days after the Gazette had identified the school as one of 221 that were eligible for parents to use their $6,000 state scholarships for the upcoming school year.

Earlier this week, a representative from the agency explained that the school was initially approved because its director had committed to verifying the legal status and potential criminal records of its employees, fulfilling the state’s basic requirements for such approval. However, the situation took a turn when SC Daily Gazette revealed that Yvonne Brown-Burgess, the director, was still under investigation for how she handled public funds at a charter school in Florence.

According to a letter from Deputy Superintendent John Tyler, the agency has now received information related to ongoing legal issues involving Palmetto Youth Academy and the Florence County School District One.

“After reviewing the allegations and considering its obligations as a steward of the education scholarship funds, the SCDE has made the decision to suspend Palmetto Promise Academy’s approval as an education service provider,” reads the one-paragraph letter.

Palmetto Promise Academy, which lacks a website, shares both its address and director with the now-closed Palmetto Youth Academy, a charter school that was established in 2005 and sponsored by the largest school district in Florence County. Last year, Florence 1 officials chose not to renew the charter due to violations of state laws and failure to meet its academic objectives. The decision was supported by the Administrative Law Court in August, as stated in court documents.

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Florence 1 Superintendent, Richard O’Malley, later alleged that the director, Brown-Burgess, misused public funds for personal use. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is still investigating these accusations, a spokeswoman informed the SC Daily Gazette on Monday. Attempts to contact Brown-Burgess for her comments on Thursday were unsuccessful, and she had previously declined to comment earlier in the week.

Following the court’s affirmation of the district’s decision, a court-appointed official has managed to reclaim $400,000, which Florence 1 officials contend should be returned to the district, a statement from the district on Wednesday disclosed.

Additionally, court authorities have pointed out another $114,000 that they suspect Brown-Burgess paid herself from a school account. Brown-Burgess has explained to investigators that she withdrew these funds with the approval of the charter school board to purchase credits for enhancing her retirement benefits, according to recent court documents released by the district on Wednesday.

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O’Malley questioned how Palmetto Promise Academy ended up on the list in the first place.

“It baffles me how a business entity with no authorization to operate a school in South Carolina gets on the list of approved providers to receive taxpayer-funded vouchers,” he said in a statement.

In the first year of South Carolina’s K-12 scholarship program, 5,000 students’ parents will get $6,000 each to use for tuition, tutoring, and other educational expenses. These payments are scheduled to begin in July, provided that the state Supreme Court does not overturn the legislation passed last year. Currently, a decision is awaited, although a lawsuit from the South Carolina Education Association and the NAACP has not halted the program’s commencement.

This school year, 7,907 parents applied for the available 5,000 scholarships. However, not all applicants met the eligibility criteria. By Tuesday, 2,467 scholarships had been granted, and 912 applications were rejected. A majority of these rejections were because the applicants’ families exceeded the income threshold set by the Department of Education.

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The program is initially open only to low-income students who are either currently enrolled in a traditional public school or are about to start kindergarten. (Students from public charter schools do not qualify). Additionally, the list of approved schools has seen adjustments; for instance, Bella Beauty School in Columbia was removed after the Gazette raised questions. The school, which offers nail and esthetician programs, had misunderstood the state’s criteria for an independent school, according to a department spokesperson.

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