LAUDERDALE LAKES, Fla. – Publically-financed charters schools are growing in popularity, and many have found success. But more and more are failing, including one in Broward County that left behind bounced checks, unpaid teachers, displaced students, and an ongoing criminal investigation.
Dr. Trayvon Mitchell promoted Ivy Academy Charter School with a fervor. It left an impression on future employees.
"I read through the Ivy plan and it seemed like a great plan," said Demetri Clark, an academic dean.
"He [Mitchell] seemed very professional -- always dressed in a suit. He was very passionate about Ivy," added Kimberly Kyle-Jones, a teacher.
The charter school, which was given nearly $500,000 in taxpayers money, quickly fell into chaos. School investigators suspected criminal wrongdoing.
LINKS: Florida Statutes governing charter schools | Starting a charter school | FDLE: Charter schools
"It was almost like a nightmare," said Clark.
When Mitchell applied to the School Board of Broward County, he admitted that he didn't yet have a building for the school. His application, along with the taxpayers money, was still approved.
Mitchell initially rented 3020 NW 33rd Avenue, which previously housed two charter schools, for Ivy Academy but didn't know the city was in the process of changing zones. He was kicked out before the school year began.
"We were told we were going to the Signature Grand," said Kyle-Jones.
Without notifying the school board, Mitchell rented the Signature Grand banquet hall for Ivy.
"Each grade level had a big banquet room," said Kyle-Jones.
"Come to find out the checks he was writing for them bounced," added Clark.
Mitchell bounced a $20,000 check at the Signature Grand and the school was kicked out, according to a school board police affidavit.
"We were told Monday we were to report to Fourth Avenue. We didn't know where we were going to be," said Kyle-Jones.
Fourth Avenue was a church at 1237 NE 4th Avenue, which was also unapproved by the school board. Teachers were told they needed to take students on what Mitchell called "field experiences" every day, including a trip to the Miami Seaquarium.
"He wrote a check that we recently found out that it bounced," said Clark. "We started finding out that checks were bouncing all over town. He was just writing checks and no one was being paid."
"We continued to be there because of the students," said Kyle-Jones.
The teachers began taking students to Holiday Park.
"Eighty to ninety degrees weather, no water. You had teachers, myself, going out to purchase drinks for the kids," said Clark. "It just became unbearable."
The school relocated to another church but was thrown out for a nonpayment in late September, a breaking point for Kyle-Jones.
"They just felt like teachers were leaving them," she said. "When I told them I was leaving, one of the students just looked at me and he said I'm never getting an education now and I just teared up. I had to leave because it broke my heart to see that."
The school later closed.
An unpaid employee then tipped off the school board. Its police raided the Fourth Avenue site on October 2, and investigators alleged grand theft of taxpayers' dollars in their search warrant
The closure left students scrambling to find new schools, and numerous staff members, including Clark and Kyle-Jones, said they lost a month or more of pay.
"How am I going to explain this to my landlord, who's not going to understand?" said Clark.
They are among numerous former staff members who are suing Mitchell.
Local 10 was unable to reach Mitchell for comment. Jones and Clark said the Broward Sheriff's Office hasn't been able to find him to serve him the lawsuits.
"We've been looking for him," said Clark. "He's been living between hotel to hotel, between Broward and Palm Beach County, but we've been looking and can't find him."
The Broward State Attorney's Office is heading the ongoing investigation into Ivy Academy. School board members also recently learned Mitchell managed another failed charter school, Next Generation, which abruptly shut down last year.
There's been at least nine other charter schools in Broward County that have failed in the past year. Local 10 will look into those cases at 11 p.m. Tuesday.