9 Investigates funding for private tutoring services



ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - Florida public schools have paid millions of tax dollars to convicted criminals and cheaters who are operating student tutoring businesses, 9 Investigates has discovered.

Eyewitness News reporter Lori Brown learned that Orange County Public Schools could serve more students using less money by having certified teachers handle the tutoring. But as Brown learned, that has not been the case due to a state mandate.

Brown found out that during a three-year period, $267,000 in state tax dollars flowed into a tutoring business run from a Winter Garden house, which is home to Busy Bee Services.

Yet Busy Bee Services' president is a convicted felon, according to court records. Those records show Yolanda Axson tried to cover it up when a slow cooker filled with boiling water fell into a baby's crib at a day care she ran in 1999.

9 Investigates found video of her online, preaching at a church she founded.

While Axson's record bars her from being a public school teacher or administrator, Orange County Public Schools is forced to pay her company to tutor district students.

"Our frustration is, we are required to take every provider that the state deems qualified," said Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette.

A recent report showed $7 million in taxpayer funds went to tutoring companies run by people with criminal pasts -- among them a rapist, thieves and drug users.

Now, those same convicted criminals, or their companies, get paid $60 an hour for tutoring services, a state-mandated rate. And many of those tutors lack college degrees.

Meanwhile, certified teachers with bachelor's or master's degrees only earn $18 to $22 an hour.

Florida requires districts to spend federal funds to tutor poor students with low Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores. But the state provides no oversight of the companies.

Last year, Orange County paid private tutoring companies $5 million to serve 4,500 students. That's about the same number of students attending two county high schools.

With the same amount, Sublette said, the district could use teachers with master's degrees to tutor 20,000 students. That's the equivalent of the student bodies at eight Orange County high schools.

"We could certainly make that money go a lot farther," Sublette said.

Brown tried to talk with Axson about running a tutoring service with a felony record, but she did not respond directly. Her CEO, however, stated in an email that Axson does not tutor students and the company conducts extensive background checks of its tutors.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education has no complaints filed against Busy Bee Services for its tutoring services.

Brown did find complaints about other tutoring operations, not run by convicted felons, that failed to provide the services students needed.

"We were promised help for our daughter, and it was never delivered," said Terry Germ, a Lake County father.

Germ says his daughter's test scores qualified her to receive math tutoring. But the company assigned to help her repeatedly sent out reading tutors.

"If I was taking $60 an hour from my boss, and not doing my job, I would be fired, I would probably be considered a thief,"

Germ said, "because I'm taking money and not doing my job in return, which is what these companies are doing."

"She didn't get the help that she needed," said Tracy Germ, the student's mother.

Despite problems with some tutoring companies, many have proved to help students improve their grades.

And Florida school districts just won freedom from having to fund all private tutoring companies next year.

Lawmakers allowed the controversial mandate to expire. That allows school districts to provide certified teachers as tutors and to use only companies that are reputable.