An Arlington private school which closed without warning Friday, stranding scores of students, just lost eligibility to receive state-funded scholarships, a financial lifeblood for many private schools in the state.
The Florida Department of Education sent Arlington Country Day a letter Jan. 19 saying the school would no longer receive money from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which pays tuition for low-income students, and from the Gardiner or John McKay scholarships, which help pay for students with disabilities.
The tax-credit scholarship is funded by companies that receive tax credits for donating to the scholarships. The McKay and Gardiner scholarships are funded directly by the state.
Arlington Country Day is a high-profile, 64-year-old private school known for its sports and a cadre of international students. But parents at the school say it was also heavily reliant on state scholarships to pay tuition, which ran $6,500 for grades K-5; $7,000 for grades 6-8; and $7,300 for grades 9-12.
Over the prior four school years, the state sent more than $2.8 million to the school in tax credit and Gardiner scholarships, according to Step Up for Students, which administers the scholarships. So far this school year, it has sent more than $361,000.
State officials could not say how much was sent via the McKay scholarships.
More than a dozen parents and a few teachers gathered outside the school Monday, most of the questioning why the school closed with little notice.
According to the state’s complaint against the school and its principal, Deborah Condit, the state conducted a site visit in October and noticed incomplete paperwork about a newly hired teacher. The school could not provide documents showing the teacher had undergone a “level II” background screening required by state law, the complaint stated.
Also records were missing for 32 students, including missing birth certificates, Social Security cards, scoliosis screening (for sixth graders or older), immunization records, attendance information and other forms. Six students’ files contained no parent contact information, the complaint said.
The state gave the school 50 days to produce the documents, but it failed to do so, the complaint from Education Commissioner Pam Stewart states.
“Scholarship payments to ACDS and its eligibility to participate have been suspended pending the submission of the aforementioned compliance documents,” the complaint states.
The school can appeal the decision and request a hearing within 15 days of the letter’s receipt.
Condit could not be reached for comment Monday. She did not appear at the school most of the day, even though parents, some teachers and the news media gathered outside.
Many of the parents and teachers said they are angry, frustrated or just perplexed. They said no one was in the school office to explain how parents can get their children’s transcripts.
Jennifer Stokes and her son, Tristan, a senior, were among those seeking answers and a transcript. Tristan got to say goodbye to one of his teachers, Bob Bell, but his mother left without his transcript.
She’s getting nervous, she said, because Tristan is only four months away from graduating. She had just put deposits down for his cap and gown and senior pictures and they had just consulted with Bell about college prospects, she said. She also chatted with Condit on Friday.
“I talked with her Friday afternoon and everything was fine,” Jennifer Stokes said. “Nothing was said when I picked my son up at 1:30 to go the doctor. She acted like it was a normal day. I’m just floored.”
Other parents said they also were not told that the school had financial or paperwork troubles.
Shaquana Lowes, a fifth-grade teacher at the school who also had a child attending, said there were signs of potential money troubles.
For instance, only one of the school’s three roofs has been repaired and one still has a tarp over incomplete work. She added that one of the school’s three buildings has a mold problem that wasn’t resolved.
After last year’s Hurricane Matthew damaged the roofs, the school briefly ran a Gofundme website, parents said, but it didn’t raise enough money for all the repairs.
The school also is facing a few potentially expensive lawsuits, including one in which a parent of an international student claims the school refused to refund $60,000 in room, board and tuition. His suit now claims the school owes triple the damages plus attorney’s fees.
Parent Kenya Pough said there were other signs of financial tension: lunches had devolved into fast food such as chicken nuggets and pizza, she said, and school officials had begun asking parents to pay extra for food and snacks. Pough said Condit should have been more upfront with parents.
“She wanted me to pay for cheerleading uniforms when she knew she was going to close,” Pough said. “I’ve got a paper trail. I paid by check.”
Some parents said there weren’t always enough textbooks, so students were not allowed to take any home. Employees said the school employed 12 to 15 teachers, one for each elementary grade and several for middle school and high school, although many high school students took courses online.
Lowes estimated that more than 100 students’ tuitions are paid for with tax-credit scholarships. Bell said its likely more than twice that, when you count McKay scholarship recipients.
Most parents said scholarships paid all of their children’s tuition, but some said they also supplemented that payment with additional money, depending on family income. Pough said she paid $1,200 more every months toward the tuition of her three children, but she has been told that she’ll only get a $15 back for a class trip.
What’s left over of the state scholarships could be transferred to whatever private school parents choose, but it is unclear whether parents will recoup any cash they personally paid the school.
Area public and private schools opened their doors to the displaced students.
Pough said she plans to send her children to Cornerstone Christian Academy, while other parents said they were considering Parsons Christian Academy next door or La Core Christian Academy nearby.
Lori Andrews, who has had five children attend Arlington Country Day, said she had offered to help Condit raise funds for the school but hadn’t heard back from her.
“There have always been financial issues here,” she said. “They didn’t have anyone doing fundraising. They needed it to back up the scholarships.”
Andrews said she was told as late as Friday that the school wouldn’t close.
“They don’t have no pity. They don’t care,” Andrews said of the school leadership.
Bell, who taught high school social studies and literature, said parents should not blame Condit. He said the school leadership was fighting to stay open, but things snowballed. He said he believes the school has outside pressure to close, because the property it sits on and the area around it are becoming more valuable for development.
“It’s about money at the expense of children,” Bell said. “Mrs. Condit was riding a boat that kept taking on water. … They did everything in their power to try to save it. They were trying to save it up to the last second.”
Denise Amos: (904) 359-4083