By Kyle LoJacono
Hand in Hand Academy opened seven years ago, and the private school promised parents a compassionate atmosphere for children to learn.
The Lutz school closed on Sept. 16 just four weeks after opening for the new school year, leaving parents with a big bill for a year of education their children will never receive.
Michael Hanke is one of several parents who already paid portions of the $8,200 for a year of education at Hand in Hand, 207 W. Lutz Lake Fern Road in Lutz. He said he and many families were pressured by the school’s former principal Wendy Alexander to pay without being told she had lost her bid for bankruptcy protection.
“She was telling us one thing and turning around and it was something totally different,” Hanke said. “She made you want to trust her.”
Parents received an email from Hand in Hand that reads, “It is not by choice, but due to threats against our program, our last day of service will be tomorrow (Sept. 16). Please accept our deepest apology and best wishes.”
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office also had a lawsuit filed against Hand in Hand from Lutz resident Mary Masher. The suit claims Masher gave the school $1,986 to pay for half of the tuition for the current fall semester for her son.
Phone calls and emails to Hand in Hand were not returned and the school’s website has been taken down. Its logo and all other references to the school have been removed from its old building.
Pilot Bank filed a foreclosure action against Hand In Hand in May for falling behind on a debt of $2.23 million. The property will go up for sale starting Nov. 22.
Sherman Brod, Alexander’s foreclosure lawyer, said the school was unable to compete for students with a number of other private and charter schools in the area.
“If they hadn’t left for whatever reason they left, the school would still be operating,” Brod said.
Brod said the main problem was Alexander had a deal to lease some property from Lutz Preparatory, which took over the building that formally housed Berean Academy at 17951 US 41 in Lutz. The new school also became the main competition for Hand in Hand.
Hand in Hand had about 100 students enrolled last year, but that number dropped to 24 for the current year, Brod said. Its leaders had applied to Hillsborough County Public Schools to become a charter school for the current school year, according to district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe).
As for the tuition money, Brod said Alexander spent it on school expenses and not on herself.
“Basically, the money is gone,” Brod said. He added Alexander did not foresee Hand in Hand’s downfall until “the bitter end.”
However, Alexander took another job with a charter school in Wisconsin on July 8, more than a month before Hand in Hand closed.
Alexander moved to Wisconsin soon after Hand in Hand closed to become the principal of Fairview School, a charter school within the Milwaukee School District. She was suspended with pay from the position on Oct. 14 after the district learned of the finical problems with the Lutz school.
Milwaukee School District spokeswoman Roseann St. Aubin said they learned of Alexander’s “personal business issues in Florida” in late September and have “been engaged in an ongoing review of the matter.
“Superintendent Gregory Thornton has assured Fairview families that their children’s academic progress is of critical importance,” St. Aubin continued. “The district took steps today to assure that teaching and learning will continue with no distraction.”
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