BRADENTON — Teachers at Bradenton Preparatory Academy say they have been getting paychecks only sporadically for months and are owed thousands of dollars in back pay.
Some have received checks that have bounced or payment was stopped, they told the Herald. Officials at the school, which is facing foreclosure, also have deducted premiums from the checks for health insurance coverage they no longer have, employees say.
Some employees say they have finally stopped reporting for work until they are paid overdue wages.
“It’s not a good environment,” said Erin Geraghty-Balent, a high school English and health teacher who has refused to work since Monday because she is owed about $6,500. “The teachers are so stressed, thinking of unpaid bills and their family. How can they concentrate?”
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School officials referred all questions about the school’s financial health to Bradenton Prep’s attorney, Edward Vogler II, who acknowledged the payroll problems but said the school is close to resolving its financial issues through new majority owner Hendrik Lamprecht.
“I know there have been cash-flow problems, and this is the result of that,” Vogler said. “I’m working on getting the capital infusion. Once we have that, all of the creditors will be attended to. There are a lot of them, including teachers.”
Geraghty-Balent and another teacher, Holly Thompson, say they and other school employees are owed three to five paychecks each.
Thompson, 39, teaches elementary art and is the school lunch program coordinator. She stopped going to work Jan. 26 because the school owes her five paychecks totaling nearly $7,000.
“I did not want to leave the kids, but what else could I do?” said Thompson, who was in her sixth year at the school.
Geraghty-Balent, who was in her third year of teaching at Bradenton Prep, said she “couldn’t will myself to go in anymore,” saying the financial problems have hurt employee morale and health.
“On a regular basis I saw people crying, some grinding their teeth. Many were constantly sick,” said Geraghty-Balent, 25. “Even if they fake a smile, people can tell. The students know what’s going on. I had one student ask me if I was going to go on strike because I wasn’t being paid.”
Outstanding liens from IRS
The employee complaints are the latest financial troubles for the private school, which has an estimated 400 students in grades K-12 and about 35 teachers among its 50 employees.
The Internal Revenue Service has three outstanding tax liens against the school’s owner, The Children’s Place Inc., for more than $921,000 in unpaid federal unemployment and payroll taxes. Two lenders are seeking to foreclose on the school property at 7900 40th Ave. W., saying Children’s Place has defaulted on more than $5.7 million in loans.
Last week, GMAC repossessed a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe leased to Bradenton Prep, contending the school has missed lease payments since Aug. 26 and owes nearly $42,300, court records show.
Vogler said the school was hit by rising expenses and falling revenue as a result of the recession and tightened credit market. The attorney said he and school officials have been in constant contact with creditors, and plan to repay them through Lamprecht’s purchase of a majority ownership stake in the school.
But that process, which involves transfers from non-U.S. bank accounts, “has taken longer and been more challenging than he anticipated,” Vogler said of Lamprecht, who began the acquisition process in October.
“The plan is to complete the capital infusion by Hendrik Lamprecht, and we’re on track to complete that,” added Vogler, who did not give a time frame. “It must be done really soon to respond to the legitimate concerns of the teachers and secured creditors.”
Some students pulled out
Uncertainty of the school’s future has led some parents to pull their children out of the academy, which charges about $13,000 a year in tuition.
Among them is Vicky Singh, of Bradenton, whose four children ages 6 to 13 now are being home-schooled after just one semester at Bradenton Prep.
“The education was great and the teachers were fabulous” at Bradenton Prep, said Singh, who moved here from Canada in August. “But I was apprehensive about the financial stability of the school.”
Another parent, DeeAnna Greenfield, said an IRS letter she received in late November prompted her to remove her son and daughter.
“The IRS told us not to write checks to the school because it was in financial difficulties,” she said. “But school leaders said it wasn’t true. They said the IRS made a mistake.”
A few weeks after that, she said, a teacher informed her about the unpaid wages.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder where all that money I gave them went to?’ ” Greenfield said. “Why haven’t they been paid? I’m frustrated and disappointed that I was lied to about the money. It’s very sad because I was so happy with the level of education my daughter and son were receiving. They had some wonderful teachers.”
Vogler said other parents have stuck by the school through its financial troubles.
“I have talked to several parents, and the ones that I’ve talked to have been understanding, appreciative of the efforts and are extremely loyal to the school,” he said. “They want to know whether they should plan on continuing their relationship with the school, and the answer is unequivocally ‘yes.’ ”
Bradenton Prep officials are not considering filing for bankruptcy protection, he said.
The teachers’ plight
Both Thompson and Geraghty-Balent said they are struggling to get by, even after borrowing money from family and friends.
Geraghty-Balent said her checking account is overdrawn by $1,000, creditors call daily and she had to get a forbearance on her student loans.
Thompson said the school dropped employee health insurance without notice, but continued to deduct premiums from paychecks afterward. She said school officials told employees to submit their medical bills to the school for payment, but that hasn’t happened and she now has $1,000 in unpaid bills.
“My doctor I see in Sarasota every month won’t see me because of past due balances,” said Thompson, who has recurring medical issues including sciatica from a pinched nerve in her back.
Vogler said he wasn’t aware of problems with health insurance because that is an internal “operational issue.”
While Geraghty-Balent and Thompson are circulating their resumes, they still worry about remaining colleagues.
“Teachers continue to show up to work because of promises made from administration that there will be bonuses and that the school will be better than ever,” Geraghty-Balent said. “All those teachers love those kids. They are like a loyal dog that gets beat and comes back.
“They are so disillusioned,” she said. “They want to believe it will get better because of what some of the school leaders, old and new, have promised. They’d keep telling us to have faith.”
If you have information about Bradenton Preparatory Academy, please contact reporters Natalie Neysa Alund at (941) 745-7095 and Duane Marsteller at (941) 745-7080, ext.2630.