02/19/12 — School under fire for finances

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School under fire for finances

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 19, 2012 1:50 AM

PIKEVILLE -- A private school for children with Asperger's syndrome has come under fire for failing to pay its teachers and because of some concerns about its curriculum.

But Steve Smith, board chairman for Asperger Connection, disputes the complaints, calling them a "personal vendetta" by disgruntled employees.

Since the school opened Aug. 15 with 40 students, several teachers have reportedly left and some parents have withdrawn their children.

Karin O'Donnell, a retired teacher from Wayne County Public Schools, was brought on board as principal. She said staff was paid sporadically and some teachers lacked credentials.

"It was like home-schooling with computers, that's what it became," she said.

Smith said the school operated under a "digital learning" model, which resulted in students spending a portion of the day on computers.

He also said employees were made aware of the school's financial problems as early as Oct. 18.

"The staff was told we're having problems with making payroll and this is what we're going to have to do. We also told the entire staff, if you feel you can't do this and you need to get another job, we understand," he said. "They all stayed because they loved the kids. State law said if they stay, they have to get paid."

Mrs. O'Donnell injured her arm on the job, resulting in surgery and a workmen's compensation claim. Then she learned she was terminated.

"She got a real caustic letter calling her a 'poor principal,' a 'poor administrator,'" said her husband, Mick O'Donnell, who also briefly worked there as a teacher.

He receives retirement benefits from the military, so when the school's financial problems arose, O'Donnell could afford to exercise a bit of patience.

"When this whole thing came up, we said, 'Pay the teachers first. Once the teachers are taken care of, then you can deal with us,'" he said.

Smith said the issues are being resolved, with replacement teachers hired and students continuing to enroll. As of this week, there were 30 students in the school, which serves kindergartners through high school sophomores.

Nancy Black is the business owner. She referred all questions to Smith, but hinted that the situation had not been one-sided, noting that she had witnessed staff behaving badly toward students and had teachers "leave, walk out and never come back and didn't notify us."

As for the payroll issue, she said, "It's a business and as a small business you have things that you're responsible for. It would be terribly inappropriate to discuss that in public. I'm trying to address it as I hear the rumors."

Jill Baker, a kindergarten teacher, said she hung in as long as she could. She left Jan. 9 and said 10 of the original hires had also departed.

"We got paid one week and we never knew when that week was going to happen," she said. "It was better to predict the weather than when we were getting a check."

The situation created an economic hardship, she said.

"My credit cards were maxed out, I have taken out loans, had friends invite me over to dinner," she said. "Basically, it's just scrimp and buy, any corner that I can cut. I go to the grocery store and buy just what I need.

"It's by the grace of God that I have gotten as far as I have."

She stayed, she said, for her students.

"We were promised that (Nancy) would catch us up, and promised and promised," she said. "We were told it would happen by Dec. 31. I had to make a decision over Christmas vacation. It's something that I prayed really, really hard about."

The same week she left, she said, three children from her class also left. Out of the original eight she had, only three remain.

"Another reason I stayed, Karin is amazing and when she got hurt and had to leave, things started falling apart. I kept saying, 'When Karin comes back, things will get better.' But Karin wasn't allowed to come back."

The salary dispute has been reported to the Department of Labor, and several said they are prepared to pursue it further, if necessary.

Caroline Bounds taught combined classes from August through October, when she was hospitalized.

While on medical leave, she began receiving notices in the mail that her insurance had been dropped by the school. Then one day Ms. Black came to her home and dropped off Ms. Bounds' belongings.

"I asked her point-blank, 'Are you terminating me?' and she said, 'No,'" Ms. Bounds said.

She withdrew her 16-year-old son, who has Asperger's, in November and now home-schools him.

"I have five years' experience of teaching children with Asperger's and I raised a child with Asperger's," she said. "I believe that only one certified teacher stayed after most of us left and she did not have experience with Asperger's."

The situation has taken a toll on her, both financially and emotionally.

"We have had to go on Medicaid and food stamps," she said. "I only got paid $500 a month, even though my contract said $30,000 a year. All my money either went to medical co-pays or gas to get back and forth to school."

Rick Barnes, senior investigator for the Department of Labor, is handling the complaint. He said he is restricted in what he can say about the investigation. In a Feb. 1 e-mail he sent to the O'Donnells, he wrote, "I met with Ms. Black today and she has asked for an extension to pay the wages both of you are due. I saw the financial statements of the business and the business is in terrible shape. Ms. Black and the board chair have asked for an extension until the end of February. I have agreed to this simply because she owes a lot of money to current and former employees and I want everyone compensated.

"I will give her until the end of the month to pay everyone. ... This is the absolute final extension."

Smith said he is angry that the situation has become public.

"We have been raked over the coals over allegations that are just not true," he said. "It's not news. It's just a matter of a small start-up company trying to make payroll.

"All the allegations about the teachers not being qualified is crap. They're all qualified. The curriculum has been approved by the state. Everything has been approved. This is a school. It's a private school. It's nobody's business."

He said those complaining are former staff members who "failed to comply with the lesson plans" or parents whose children were on scholarship and weren't even paying tuition.

"This is a private school," he said. "The children are learning. They're learning based on the model that works.

"It's just a matter of fact that we had an unfortunate situation. We got into a bit of a money problem, that's all it is. We're working with the Department of Labor. There's a plan in place to get everybody paid."

Smith said the issues being brought up are "not real" and designed to run Ms. Black out of business.

"The school is fine, the teachers are fine, the students are fine," he said. "We have documentation that all the allegations that are being leveled are untrue ....

"The whole thing here is to keep the school open for the children. We have had remarkable results. But if you run stories on this other than anything positive, it's going to be the end of this school and I don't want to be there when they tell those kids."

Meanwhile, every effort is being made to resolve the payroll issues, he said.

"If the Department of Labor is fine with it, if the Employment Security Commission and the attorney general is fine with it, what's the problem?" he said.