SAN BERNARDINO - Over 11 years, Michael Dickinson saw his dream of building an independent charter school to prepare young boys and girls for careers as police officers and firefighters realized.

He embarked on that dream in 2000, mentoring eight cadets at the San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters' union hall.

Seven years later, the school would find its permanent home in a nondescript building at 1494 E. Art Townsend Drive at San Bernardino International Airport. There, Dickinson would grow his Public Safety Academy to more than 400 cadets.

And in the last seven weeks, he lost it all.

"I still feel sad inside.

Dickinson
Dickinson
He put a lot of heart and soul into it," said Jeff Breiten, a retired San Bernardino police captain and member of the school's board of trustees who served as Dickinson's second in command at the school from 2007 through 2009. "It's not the way I would have liked to have seen him go out."

On Wednesday, the board of trustees, after scoring a victory in San Bernardino Superior Court that reaffirmed the board's status as the official governing body of the school, voted to lay off Dickinson, ending a nearly two-month battle over control of the school and oversight of its finances.

The board previously voted to lay off Mike Davis, the school's chief financial officer, and Dickinson's wife, Susan Dickinson, a sixth-grade teacher at the school and principal of its middle school campus.

Within hours of Judge John P. Vander Feer's ruling on Wednesday, Dickinson took down the school's website. On Thursday, he posted an eight-paragraph farewell under the same Web domain.

"The very people I gave a job, I asked to serve on a board to help me help the youth, the same people who told me they would never let me down, would always have my back, well they fired me from the academy I created," Dickinson said in his post under the heading "Last Thoughts."

Dickinson and his supporters allege the board's actions are part of a politically motivated conspiracy involving other San Bernardino city officials to take over the school.

Dickinson's lawyer, Steven Beckett, argued in court that the action taken by Dickinson and the school's corporate board of directors to dissolve the school's board of trustees the week of May 22 was justified.

He said the corporate board initially appointed the board of trustees and therefore had the power to remove members or the entire board.

Judge Vander Feer disagreed, saying nowhere in the school's charter was that made clear.

Dickinson's ire over the loss of his job came roughly seven weeks after he took action to dissolve the board of trustees, which include current and retired San Bernardino police officers and firefighters and city officials from San Bernardino and Highland.

That action came one week before the board was to consider a recommendation by school Principal Kathy Toy to fire Dickinson's wife, who was found to have cheated on a state standardized test by reviewing test material in advance and coaching her students on at least two math problems.

The conflict between Dickinson and the school's board of trustees wasn't always so.

For years, they worked in unison in an effort to make the school a success and provide an educational experience for local youths unlike any other.

But both the board and the San Bernardino City Unified School District's board had to contend with continual complaints from teachers and parents about Dickinson's leadership style.

Dickinson, as it was reported, had a volatile temper, and on at least one occasion kicked a door in at the school in a fit of rage, according to a March performance evaluation by the school's high school teachers.

He was also notorious for playing favorites with cadets, particularly his own children, and engaged in retaliatory behavior with anyone who crossed him. 

At a meeting of the district's board in February 2008, where more than a half a dozen parents and school staff appeared to voice their complaints about Dickinson, school counselor Lisa Gonzales told the board Dickinson became irate and didn't speak to her for three weeks after she complained that staff and students at the school were driving other students to and from Crafton Hills College without liability waivers.

Earlier this year, tensions among the board, Dickinson and Davis, escalated when the school district issued a scathing financial analysis of the school, prompted by complaints the previous fall about the school's accounting practices.

The report cited 13 deficiencies with the school's fiscal operations, and it wasn't the first time the school was vexed with such problems.

In 2008, an audit determined the school was operating over budget and failed to maintain proper accounting records.

Board trustee Peggi Hazlett alleges in a lawsuit filed on June 20, which prompted Wednesday's court ruling, that the action taken by Dickinson to dissolve the board violated the school's charter and came after trustees began demanding from Dickinson and Davis financial documents that would reconcile questionable purchases and expenditures.

Those records were never produced.

Dickinson and Davis had salaries of $115,000 and $114,000, respectively.

Susan Dickinson earned a salary of $92,000, but lacked the educational background to justify such a salary, officials said.

Hazlett's attorney, Cynthia Germano, said at Wednesday's court hearing that the actions taken by Dickinson were merely an effort to protect those salaries and those of other school employees who supported Dickinson.

Davis was also the chief financial officer at the embattled California Charter Academy in Victorville, which closed in 2007 after a Grand Jury indicted its founder, C. Steven Cox, and Hesperia Councilman Tad Honeycutt, Cox's business partner.

Both were charged, collectively, with more than 100 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds, grand theft and tax fraud, among other charges.

Davis was never charged in that case, but a forensic audit of the school conducted in 2005 concluded he was one of roughly a dozen school employees or members of their families who received sport utility vehicles that were purchased with state funds intended for the school.

Davis was the recipient of a 2002 Audi TT Roadster, according to the audit.

Davis cleaned out his office at the Public Safety Academy on Wednesday following the judge's ruling but has not provided the password to his computer so auditors can access financial records.

An audit is now under way, Breiten said.

After only one day of auditing, Charter School Management Corporation, the company hired by the board to clean up the school's questionable finances, was painting a bleak picture.

Auditors turned up an unpaid $47,000 bill to a caterer for lunches provided to cadets last year.

The school also owes $250,000 to the California Charter Schools Association, which is due on Aug. 20, Breiten said.

The looming question now is, "Will the school be able to make payroll?"

Roughly a dozen teachers are expected to return to school on Aug. 4 when classes resume.

Still, with the school's top administrators gone, school officials and parents are hoping the legacy of the Public Safety Academy will live on.

"While we commend Michael Dickinson on all that he has accomplished as the founding leader of PSA, recent actions may not have been reflective of what a charter school leader should do, and also not conducive to assuring the long term success of PSA and its students," said Steven A. Holguin, senior manager of school development for the California Charter Schools Association. "We believe PSA is a high quality school, with a quality program, excellent students, and dedicated staff and parents. Like their mascot, the Phoenix, we believe that PSA will rise from these challenges to become a stronger and more effective school program for the students of San Bernardino."