The Bradenton (Fla.) Preparatory Academy is in trouble on multiple fronts: The school is in serious debt, the state of Florida doesn't recognize that it's teaching students in its current building and its acclaimed football program may be fielding players who have already graduated from high school.
All those problems were brought to light in an investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which proved that Prep Learning Academy currently has no recognized physical campus after its prior home was lost to foreclosure last year. It doesn't even have the correct permit to operate a school in Florida and owes back pay of more than $25,000 to its teachers and more than $1 million in taxes to the U.S. government.
Still, Prep Learning Academy has one of the mostfar-reaching and aggressive schedules of any private school football program in the country. The Patriots obliterated the defending Texas private school (TAPPS) champion Richardson Canyon Creek 55-0 last week. That thrashing was just the second stop on a season sojourn that will also take Prep to New Orleans and Minnesota, not to mention another stop in Texas.
"I find it amazing that they can come up with all thismoney to send a team to Texas but they couldn't pay us," former teacher Mary Conway, one of 15 former staff preparing to sue the school for unpaid salary, told the Herald-Tribune. "I believe they have money. They just don't want to pay the former teachers."
If suspicions about the program's finances weren't enough, Prep is also facing serious questions about its players, too. According to a story from the Bradenton Herald, Prep's other Texas foe, Redwater High, cancelled its game against the Patriots. Redwater called the meeting off after learning Prep fields seven players who are too old to participate in high school football in Texas, two of whom have already graduated from high school. Redwater coach and athletic director Jeff Stine even cited Prep's overaged players as proof that the game wouldn't be "high school against high school."
"I was not about toput my kids in that situation," Stine said. "There is noway to validate and no way to know the ages of any of the other kids on the team. ... I wasn't about to put 15-, 16-year-old kids on the same field with players who could be freshmen or sophomores in college.
"If I wanted to play a junior college, I would have scheduled a junior college here in Texas."
The Herald documented the cases of the two Prep Learning Academy players listed as having earned high school degrees: Cory Morrow and Ryan Kruse. According to the newspaper, Morrow received a diploma from Bayshore (Fla.) High, and Kruse received a degree from Sarasota High.
Prep's athletic director and new head football coach, Walt Williams, finally spoke out about the controversy surrounding his players' age on Friday in an interview with the Bradenton Herald.
“Had we known those kids were post-graduates, they would have never been on the bus,” said Walt Williams, who spoke out Friday for the first time in an interview with the Herald. ...
“All this stuff occurred once we were in Texas,” Williams said. “If we had this information before we left, those kids would never have been on the bus. I did not know they were post-graduates. I told Mr. Stine any kids that were in question, we are going to pull those kids, and those kids would not play in a game until I was definitely sure what was going on.
“They said there were seven players in question. I told them I would pull those players, and let’s play football, and that gentleman declined to play the game. We did not break any rules because we did not play the game.”
Williams, also Bradenton Prep’s athletic director, said the only paperwork he had on some of his players was left by Bradenton Prep’s former head coach, Joe Hammond. He said that paperwork was incomplete, which led to the problem of using ineligible players.
“When I got to Texas, I found two of our players were ineligible. I took them aside and told them they would not be allowed to play, and we would resolve the matter when we got back home,” Williams said.
As quickly as Williams had pushed responsibility for his team's controversial roster on Williams, Hammond responded in kind.
“They knew everybody on the team and whether they were eligible,” Hammond said when contacted by the Bradenton Herald Friday. “In every school, the athletic director is supposed to take care of the paperwork. When I left there, Walt Williams was the athletic director, and he is still the athletic director.”
With all the issues swirling around Prep Learning Academy, there's curiosity over how the program is allowed to compete in the first place. According to the Herald-Tribune, Bradenton Prep violated 19 different Florida High School Athletic Association rules in 2008, earning a massive $38,000 in fines for the indiscretions. Among the rules Prep broke were regulations governing recruitment of players, providing improper student housing and failing to adhere to guidelines of financial aid.
Before Williams' statements, only one Prep Learning Academy official would speak on the record to either the Herald or the Herald-Tribune, and he only disputed one major claim made in recent articles by the two newspapers.
Hendrik Lamprecht, Prep's CEO, told the Herald he knew "absolutely nothing" aboutpost-graduates being on the football team's roster. He also said he wasn'tfamiliar with Kruse, adding he wasn't on the school's enrollment sheet, nor washe listed among the players who made the trip to Texas.
So, how are the Prep Learning Academy Patriots stillcompeting in Florida and, for that matter, the rest of the country? The organization's physical presence now resides in a store front along Cortez Road in Bradenton, where the Herald-Tribune discovered that the school is currently renting a property and holding classes. But no permits have been filed to house recognized school classes in the building, which would mean at least a 6-8 week period after an application is made in which the school still wouldn't hold classes that are recognized by the state board of education.
The lack of a recognized physical building adds one more disturbing similarity between Prep Learning Academy's current status and that of the high school basketball degree factories that popped up in the mid 2000s. After investigations by The New York Times and other sources exposed Lutheran Christian in Philadelphia, Boys to Men Academy in Chicago and Redemption Christian Academy in New York, those schools folded and the NCAA tightened eligibility loopholes.
The question now is whether further scrutiny of Prep Learning Academy will spark similar high school athletics eligibility revisions, or whether a once-proud institution can spark a phoenix-like resurrection to credibility.
- Walt Williams